At the start of the millennium, researchers began to puzzle over why women’s earnings seemed to be levelling off. Women were still graduating from college at greater rates than men, still flooding lucrative jobs, but their earnings, especially at the top, had stalled.
Economist Linda Babcock hit upon a fairly simple explanation when directing the PhD programme at Carnegie Mellon University. A group of female graduate students came in to complain that they were stuck teaching for other faculty while the men got to teach their own classes. Babcock tracked down the dean in charge to ask him about it. The women, he told her, “just don’t ask”, so they don’t get assigned their own classes.
Babcock wondered if this might be true in other areas of their lives, so she ran an experiment with Carnegie Mellon alumni who’d recently graduated with master’s degrees, asking them about starting salaries in their new jobs.
It turned out that 57 per cent of the men had negotiated their starting salaries, while only 7 per cent of the women had, even though the school’s career services department strongly advised negotiation. As a result, men had starting salaries that averaged 7.6 per cent higher than women’s.
Babcock is an economist, so she worked this out to its logical conclusion: even if a man never asked for a raise again and he and his female counterpart both got 3 per cent raises for the rest of their careers, the man’s 7.4 per cent higher starting salary would make him half a million dollars richer than her by the time they reached retirement age.
Women weren’t bad at negotiating in general – on behalf of the company, say, or for their children or friends – but they were reluctant to negotiate for themselves. They seemed to assume that if they worked hard, the proper rewards would come their way.
Babcock’s research helped spawn an industry of advice books intended to toughen women up: Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office; Play Like A Man, Win Like A Woman; Stop Sabotaging Your Career. But the academic research was taking a curious turn.
Study after study found that women who did not conform to female stereotypes – who bluntly asked for a raise, self-promoted or demanded credit for work they’d done – paid a high price in the workplace. People judged them as harsh or unpleasant, and didn’t want to work with them.
Women still penalised for speaking up
Researchers tested different workplace scenarios, always with the same result: women who speak aggressively get lower marks than women who speak tentatively. Women who self-promote are judged to lack social skills. Ditto for women who express any kind of anger in the workplace. In one scenario, some colleagues were about to go to an office party when another showed up in a last-minute panic over a broken photocopier. He needed help manually stapling 500 sets of the pages he had copied. The women who said no and went off to the party were marked down. Men who did the same were not judged at all.
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