It is not widely known that when Barack Obama became president, the first act he chose to sign was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Lilly Ledbetter was a top-performing executive. One day, she received an anonymous note revealing that she was earning much less than the men in her position. It encouraged her to file a sex discrimination case. Today, equal pay legislature carries her name.
The beginning of the 21st century increased the awareness, in many parts of the world, of the importance of an equal society where women and men compete equally for top positions and are compensated for their work equally. Policymakers, boards of large and small corporations, media and academics support women’s empowerment. However, the final step of breaking the gender pay gap should be taken by women themselves through active and consistent negotiation for higher pay.
Accumulation of disadvantage
Research suggests that women and men don’t necessarily start from the same level of compensation. While men are consistently negotiating a pay raise, women accept what is offered. Employers, in return, anticipate that they need to pay men more than women and contribute towards the vicious circle of unequal pay.
Let’s look at the example of Sara and Fred, who recently graduated from the same European business school. At the age of 22, Sara and Fred receive a job offer with an annual salary of €25k. Fred negotiates and gets his job offer raised to €30k. Sara accepts her 25k offer. Assume they start with the same company and simply receive an equal pay rise of 3% every year. By the age of 60, their pay gap will widen to more than €15k a year (Fred will be paid €92,243 and Sara €76,870). Just imagine how big the pay gap will be if Fred continues to negotiate for a salary increase routinely! Researchers note that even when differences in the performance evaluation awarded to men and women are minuscule (1%), it doesn’t take long before the overwhelming majority of people at the highest levels with the highest compensation level are men. This is what sociologists call the “accumulation of disadvantage”.
Why is it harder for women to ask for a pay rise? For a start, it is wrong to assume that men and women are in the same position when they raise the question of higher compensation. Social stereotypes are still strong among all groups of society, and men’s competitive behaviour in business is perceived as normal. At the same time, women are still expected to be understanding, patient and less demanding. Multiple case studies show how women are penalised socially much more than men for asking for higher pay.
Women who choose to negotiate are facing a social dilemma; they compare the potential gains from negotiating a better compensation against the social losses, adverse judgements and being labelled as “difficult” and “demanding”.
How women can break the gender pay gap
So how can women overcome the social dilemma they face and successfully negotiate what they deserve without downsides?
1. Negotiate more often and with more ambitious goals
The winning strategy is to choose negotiation in the first place. Negotiation skills are like any other skills: they flourish and grow with practice. What doesn’t help is avoiding negotiation and waiting for a better outcome. So the first step is deciding to go for negotiation, practising and being prepared. It is proven that women become excellent negotiators through training.Role simulations at home or with friends, as well as live practice while shopping for food or buying a car or hiring a handyman for home improvement, can be a good playground to prepare for the first big negotiation and all the ensuing ones.
It is also known that setting higher aspirations tends to deliver higher payoffs. Someone said that “high aspirations are like motivation vitamins for individual achievement”. The salary for a position is never written in stone. It is usually a range, and without aspiration, women will simply not get the compensation at the highest end of this range. So next time you ask yourself how satisfied you are with your current compensation, remember that, on average, women report salary expectations that are between 3 and 32 per cent lower than those reported by men for the same jobs.
But how to aim high while staying realistic? Preparation and research help, and we will discuss this later.
2. Focus on relationships and communal benefits
In salary negotiations, the winning strategy for women to avoid the social cost of being perceived as “demanding” is to emphasise the importance of relationships, promote communal benefits and concern for others.
Expressing a strong willingness to cooperate and do it within a perceived partnership can help women in salary raise negotiations. “I believe it is very important that we work together towards finding the right solution”, “my main priority is to build a long-lasting partnership with you and the team”, “I think first of all about our team”, “I care most about my relationship with you and the team and always put people first” are the types of statements that will help you get to the result you are looking for.
It was also established by multiple researchers that professional women were significantly more likeable and therefore, more influential when they used a friendly social style of influence and not a more direct style of communication. Interestingly, men’s persuasiveness is not affected by the style of communication they choose for their negotiations. This is just another reminder that gender biases are still very present.
So here is an example of an opening line that puts forward the importance of teamwork:
I hope it’s ok to spend a few minutes discussing my salary. For me, the most important is to build a strong relationship with you and the team, and I don’t want to create any tension by bringing this up. I just thought this might be a good moment for me to discuss this topic openly.
3. Collect more information and use solid reasoning
The trap of being friendly is, however, that it can be perceived by men as a weak position, and showing concern for the team’s priorities might suggest that you’re prepared for concessions. Many experts and academics confirm that, stereotypically, female communication styles are often associated with low-status influence styles. Solid reasoning can help to avoid falling into this trap, making the request legitimate. Use appropriate reasoning, justified by context, and rely on facts, not emotions or feelings, to move forward with credibility and legitimacy.
Besides, to make sure that you set ambitious goals, you need to collect good information to minimise uncertainty. Are you fairly paid? Are you entitled to a pay rise? What is the average in your industry? What benefits can you ask for? If a man and a woman are in a situation of equal uncertainty about what is appropriate, it is proven that a man will adopt a more aggressive style in asking for more. To avoid this trap, get your data right to have more confidence in the legitimacy of your asks.
To benchmark your salary level, you can for example, contact recruiters to discuss a salary range for your level of experience. There are also multiple websites where you can find information about compensation in different industries. Also, don’t forget about your colleagues and your network.
Research shows that men are much more open to discuss their compensation packages, so don’t hesitate to ask them. The more information you get, the better you will be prepared, the more ambitious your demands will be, and the more legitimacy you will have for a pay raise conversation.
Once you are armed with facts, you can formulate your position clearly. For example:
“My compensation last year was $50k plus bonus. Talking to some industry colleagues working in similar positions to mine as well as to a few recruiters, I understand that I should be getting a base salary of at least $70k. I want to emphasise that I am very happy here, I enjoy working with the team, and my motivation is to continue working with the best experts in our sector. The only reason I am bringing my compensation up is that I believe I am entitled to receive a fair market compensation for my expertise and seniority.”
Another job offer for more money might be an effective strategy too, but only if you really have an alternative offer. It should be used as a justification for asking for fair compensation, not as an ultimatum style, “take it or leaveit” strategy unless, of course, you are prepared to take the other offer. If social bias expects women to care for team relationships, this strategy can easily come across as a threat and result in negative social outcomes (potentially, this strategy might work better for men rather than women because of the different social norms and expectations).
4. Negotiate for the entire female community
Research shows that women perform better when their role is to advocate for others as opposed to negotiating for themselves. In fact, in representation negotiations where women act on someone else’s behalf, women outperform men by 23%. Men’s behaviour and the ensuing social effects don’t shift much depending on whether they are negotiating for themselves or others.
When negotiating for others, women develop more aspiration, which allows them to achieve better results. So when you need to negotiate for yourself, think about the groups you represent.By negotiating your pay raise, by asking for more responsibilities and a higher management position, you are negotiating not only for yourself but on behalf of the entire female community. It is extremely important for other women to see that it is possible and that many women are successfully negotiating their position. For example, there is evidence that when more women gain high-status managerial positions, the gender pay gap reduces for lower-level workers.
You are negotiating not only for yourself but on behalf of the entire female community
I’d like to finish this article by encouraging women to build support groups, surround themselves with people to whom they can turn for advice, to encourage each other to negotiate, to build self-confidence with practice. A lot of women are afraid of negotiation, so when they have to negotiate, they are ill-prepared. Avoid this scenario by using any chance you get to practice these new skills. Prepare well for every negotiation, collect facts to minimise ambiguity surrounding compensation discussions and bring legitimacy to your requests for higher compensation. Communicate your focus on healthy relationships within your organisation and your concern for social outcomes. All these actions will help you and many other women to achieve more and break the gender pay gap for all levels.
License and Republishing
The Choice - Republishing rules
We publish under a Creative Commons license with the following characteristics Attribution/Sharealike.
- You may not make any changes to the articles published on our site, except for dates, locations (according to the news, if necessary), and your editorial policy. The content must be reproduced and represented by the licensee as published by The Choice, without any cuts, additions, insertions, reductions, alterations or any other modifications.If changes are planned in the text, they must be made in agreement with the author before publication.
- Please make sure to cite the authors of the articles, ideally at the beginning of your republication.
- It is mandatory to cite The Choice and include a link to its homepage or the URL of thearticle. Insertion of The Choice’s logo is highly recommended.
- The sale of our articles in a separate way, in their entirety or in extracts, is not allowed , but you can publish them on pages including advertisements.
- Please request permission before republishing any of the images or pictures contained in our articles. Some of them are not available for republishing without authorization and payment. Please check the terms available in the image caption. However, it is possible to remove images or pictures used by The Choice or replace them with your own.
- Systematic and/or complete republication of the articles and content available on The Choice is prohibited.
- Republishing The Choice articles on a site whose access is entirely available by payment or by subscription is prohibited.
- For websites where access to digital content is restricted by a paywall, republication of The Choice articles, in their entirety, must be on the open access portion of those sites.
- The Choice reserves the right to enter into separate written agreements for the republication of its articles, under the non-exclusive Creative Commons licenses and with the permission of the authors. Please contact The Choice if you are interested at email@example.com.
Extracts: It is recommended that after republishing the first few lines or a paragraph of an article, you indicate "The entire article is available on ESCP’s media, The Choice" with a link to the article.
Citations: Citations of articles written by authors from The Choice should include a link to the URL of the authors’ article.
Translations: Translations may be considered modifications under The Choice's Creative Commons license, therefore these are not permitted without the approval of the article's author.
Modifications: Modifications are not permitted under the Creative Commons license of The Choice. However, authors may be contacted for authorization, prior to any publication, where a modification is planned. Without express consent, The Choice is not bound by any changes made to its content when republished.
Authorized connections / copyright assignment forms: Their use is not necessary as long as the republishing rules of this article are respected.
Print: The Choice articles can be republished according to the rules mentioned above, without the need to include the view counter and links in a printed version.
If you choose this option, please send an image of the republished article to The Choice team so that the author can review it.
Podcasts and videos: Videos and podcasts whose copyrights belong to The Choice are also under a Creative Commons license. Therefore, the same republishing rules apply to them.