Why Is It So Hard For Women To Ask For A Raise?

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For most people, asking your boss for a raise is a nerve-racking experience; it's a demand to be recognized for your worth, and as such, requires a bit of self-confidence. It has repeatedly been proven by researchers, however, that it's a more nerve-wracking experience for women than it is for men. Societal expectations that women act meek and conciliatory — along with social penalties for stepping outside gender roles, and business cultures that typically reward and promote men over women — often keep women from negotiating effectively or, indeed, negotiating at all. This is more than just a frustration or annoyance; it's a problem that has cumulative effects on female wealth, power and corporate engagement.

There are many reasons this problem seems to be entrenched — and there is no magic bullet to fixing it. Many who have done research on the issue believe that there are a number of factors in play here — including patriarchal expectations that constrain women's behavior, and work environments that (consciously or unconsciously) tend to be sexist in the ways they approach male and female raises.

Bustle spoke to experts Ursula Mead and Luisa Zhou about why so many women find asking for a raise so difficult, and what they can do to help themselves out.

Why We Shouldn't Think Of Asking For Raises As "Aggressive" (Spoiler: It Makes Us Broke & Depressed)

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There's a consistent message across many studies of women in the workplace: aggression is viewed as masculine, and therefore as problematic when exhibited by women. And going in for a wage negotiation is, itself, an inherently aggressive move. Our conceptions of female power and what women are and aren't "allowed" to do directly impacts our ability to ask for the money we deserve.

The problem, as Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University explained to NPR, is that there is a "snowball effect:" women are less likely to ask for raises because of perceptions of "aggression," which are, incidentally, often held by both men and women when they watch women being assertive. Instead, they typically wait to be offered raises, so they're slower to achieve advancement, slower to achieve higher pay, and therefore frequently lag behind male peers in terms of advancement (this is all in addition to the fact that women are often paid less than male peers for the same exact job in the first place).

There's also, according to some experts, a penalty to the asking itself among women. Researchers from the Kennedy School have found that there is sometimes a "social cost" for women who ask for a pay rise; some women found that being perceived as aggressive made people less likely to socialize with them or (more importantly for future raises) network and collaborate.

Ursula Mead, who founded the workplace ratings system InHerSight to evaluate company support for women across industries, points out that there's another cost to low raise-seeking behavior. "When we don’t negotiate," she told Bustle, "we leave a lot of money and future earnings power on the table. But did you know that avoiding asking for that raise might also be putting your happiness at work at risk? Salary satisfaction is one of the top three drivers of women’s satisfaction at work, according to our research at InHerSight. It’s also one of the top three things women tell us they want from companies. So if the dollars themselves weren’t reason enough to negotiate, your happiness may just depend on it."

There Isn't Just A Gender Gap When It Comes To Raises — There's A Racial One, Too

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A study from 2016 also highlighted that there's both a racial and a gender barrier to raise negotiations. Men, the scientists explained to the Harvard Business Review, are "more comfortable requesting a raise... more likely to have asked for a raise during their careers, and...ask for more money than women." But racism factors in, pushing members of most marginalized groups to ask for raises less often than their white peers. White Americans were the group most likely to push for a raise, while, in descending order, black, Latino, and Asian Americans were less likely to ask for a raise. But within each group, men were more likely to ask for a raise than women.

This means that women from marginalized groups are in a double-bind — fighting not only against sexist expectations of behavior, but racist ones, as well.

Women Don't Ask For Raises As Frequently As Men Do — Because They Often Don't Realize That They Can

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A 2016 study said that women do, in fact, ask for raises as often as men, but are 25 percent less likely to get them — which would mean that the only problem was the fact that we don't reward women for assertiveness (rather than that issue, coupled with the fact that women are often hesitant to be assertive in the first place).

However, many felt that the survey's findings didn't hold up to close scrutiny. Kim Elsesser at Forbes pointed out that there's a long-held and much-replicated body of evidence to suggest women don't ask for raises as often as male peers, which predates this study — and also suggested that the study framed the question in a way that actually showed that women were less likely to even think of asking for a raise.

While the study found that men and women both asked for raises when it was made clear that pay was negotiable, 48 percent of the men surveyed thought their salary was negotiable, while only 32 percent of women did. In other words, if women weren't explicitly told that they could ask for more money, they tended to assume it wasn't possible — meaning that many did not attempt to ask for raises in situations where their male peers asked for more cash.

This backs up a finding from 2012, in which scientists discovered that while women are often eager to negotiate for more pay, they're much less likely to do so if there isn't "an explicit statement in the job description that payment is negotiable." Men, according to this formulation, are more likely to simply take the risk when there is no clear indication that they are expected to negotiate their salary.

Elsesser also pointed out that the study revealed that, in response to the question "I have attempted to attain a better wage/salary for myself in my role, but was unsuccessful," a whopping 74 percent of men had tried, while only 66 percent of women had. The picture this reveals is that men are willing to ask for a wage increase even if their job description doesn't say they can (and they're likely to get turned down).

It's a problem that's exacerbated by the gender of the people being asked, too. A 2005 study found that while women negotiating a pay raise with male bosses experienced more "pushback" than male colleagues, female bosses tended to treat requests gender-equally.

Luisa Zhou, who runs the program From Employee To Entrepreneur, points out that there's gender inequality in the way in which women highlight their accomplishments to employers. “A common mistake," she told Bustle, "is to quietly do good work throughout the year and assume that it’s being noticed and accounted for when you ask for a raise. Like many women, I didn’t know how to talk about my accomplishments without sounding like I was bragging, so I didn’t talk about them at all. The result was that when it came time for promotions or raises and I pointed out all the things I’d done, my managers would say, ‘Oh, you did all of that? Next time, tell me about it in advance'."

What Can You Do?

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If you are looking for a raise, keeping these discoveries in mind is helpful. Zhou and Mead both have practical advice on what to do when negotiating your way to the top. Zhou told Bustle that "speaking with genuine excitement and passion," "providing value" by giving examples of your contributions, and giving "a story which can be used to highlight how hard you worked, obstacles, etc." are all good scripts to use to keep yourself on track.

Before you get in the door, though, it's worthwhile to do your research. Mead recommended that raise-seekers figure out what precisely they should be earning so that their figures line up with market expectation:

Pushing for a raise won't solve the greater issues of women's pay inequality, of course — especially as many female workers find themselves in jobs that offer little or no room for pay negotiation. But if you're in a career where you're able to ask for a raise, keep these tips in mind: you shouldn't assume that your salary is non-negotiable, just because no one told you that it was negotiable. Seeking to raise your leadership credentials and show yourself as a person who asserts herself will help your argument, as will studying, preparing and knowing the market. And if you don't get there the first time out, keep trying.