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Mind The Pay Gap: Waging The Battle For Women's Worth

Until women are paid what they are worth, this country is missing a great growth opportunity. (atomicShed/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Until women are paid what they are worth, this country is missing a great growth opportunity. (atomicShed/flickr)

Whether you're a fan of "The X-Files" or not, the recent reboot of this 1990s television series illustrates an important point worth repeating: Often men and women are not offered equal pay for equal work. Gillian Anderson was offered half the salary as her male co-star, David Duchovny, to appear in the remake. Anderson refused. Now she and Duchovny receive the same salary.

High profile examples like Anderson’s are worth repeating — not only to encourage more women to negotiate — but also to erode the gender penalty for women who negotiate assertively. Research shows that women who pursue the same negotiation strategy as men are generally viewed by others as too aggressive and less desirable to work with due to ingrained cultural expectations. But we hope for a day when women negotiating pay will be seen as the norm rather than the exception.

women could fare better economically by approaching each negotiation like they are negotiating for a friend.

Our center conducts workshops to coach college students, in particular women, how to negotiate their starting salary. We discovered that women are quick to ask about this resource -- for other women. Our information table at homecoming had the strongest interest from mothers for their daughters and from women for their sisters and friends. This is consistent with findings that women are generally at their best when they negotiate for others.

A recently published meta-analysis on gender differences in negotiated outcomes found that men achieved better economic results than women on average. However, this gap was significantly smaller when individuals were negotiating on behalf of another. One lesson to infer is that women could fare better economically by approaching each negotiation like they are negotiating for a friend.

In conducting the workshops, we also found that female students have a lot of uncertainty over how much to ask for in a starting salary. When they have already observed a pay differential between themselves and male colleagues in their part-time jobs, they want to know how to break this trend when starting in the workforce. Should they lie when asked about their current salary so that they can start at the same salaries as their male counterparts?

In addition to being uncomfortable negotiating an equitable starting wage, our female students have already developed an apologetic attitude toward prospective bargaining for the future. They are mentally prepared to compromise on their pay to apologize for past or future parenthood. Our training teaches them to focus on what they are actually bringing to the job so that parental obligations (either actual or hypothetical) do not fog their negotiation. We teach them that salary negotiation is about value: the value of what they bring to a company. Personal needs are more likely to have a different solution once they have had the opportunity to prove to an employer the excellent work they can do. The important thing to ensure is that they start that work with a fair salary, so they are valued and incentivized to give their best.

Beyond the individual women we are training, our experience also shows clearly that employers need as much education in salary negotiation as employees do. Some organizations have initiated structural changes — such as fixed rather than negotiated starting salaries — to assure that men and women start at the same salary.

employers need as much education in salary negotiation as employees do.

Awareness at the top (and having daughters) also appears to make a difference. Studies heralding the “daughter effect” find that after male CEOs have daughters, the wages of female employees in their organizations rise closer to that of the organization’s male employees. Similar effects exist in the political realm, with another study finding that Supreme Court justices with daughters and male legislators with daughters are more likely to vote in favor of women’s rights.

In our wage negotiation workshops, we’ve found that male participants are often most interested in learning how to help their girlfriends, sisters and wives negotiate better wages. Together, the research and our experience suggests that prompting men to consider important women in their lives may be key to engaging men in actions that support gender parity in wages.

Women account for the majority (57 percent) of college students in the U.S. This represents a tremendous amount of investment in human capital made by households and taxpayers. Regardless of gender, any investor knows the importance of getting the highest return on their investments. Until women are paid what they are worth, this country is missing a great growth opportunity.


This piece was co-authored by Galizzi's UMass colleagues Kim Merriman, an associate professor of management who has expertise in compensation; and Beth Humberd, an assistant professor of management who has a specialty in gender in the workplace. All are faculty associates at the Center for Women & Work, a group dedicated to advancing knowledge about the relationship between gender and work through research.

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