If you're a woman with a full-time job, you've probably had this nugget of advice thrown your way: women make less money than men because they don't ask for more. This thinking became popular about a decade ago, when economist Linda Babcock's academic book about gender and negotiation, Women Don't Ask, was first published by a major press. Babcock and other economics experts released shocking research: men asked for raises four times as often as women, and only 7 percent of women negotiated for pay in their first jobs, compared to 57 percent of men. The economists had their insights seconded by experts in other professions, like formerWall Street Journal editor Joanne Lipman, who claimed in a 2009 New York Times editorial that no female employee had ever even asked her for a promotion. The narrative that women were paid less because they "didn't know" how to advocate for themselves at work became baked into our understanding of the pay gap, the glass ceiling, and other career concerns.
Women's supposed reluctance to ask for better pay was even pointed to by some as a major factor in the pay gap. Career advice teaching women to be more aggressive about pay negotiation has become incredibly common, even serving as a cornerstone of Sheryl Sandberg's mega-bestselling 2013 guide for women in business, Lean In.
More recent research has revealed that today, more women than ever are asking for what they're worth — but they're still not getting it. A 2016 study of 4,600 employees, conducted by the UK's University of Warwick and the University of Wisconsin, showed that women now ask for raises at the same rate as their male peers — they're just 25 percent less likely to receive them. And a 2018 survey of 1,000 people by CreditLoan.com found that while 13.3 percent of men who asked for a raise got exactly what they requested, only 9.1 percent of women could say the same.
Of course, some people still think the problem is that women somehow haven't cracked the perfect way to ask for a raise — a 2018 USA Today article on the CreditLoan.com survey claimed that the results mean that "women need to step up their game when it comes to negotiating for more money." Uh, maybe. But it seems more likely that a business philosophy that put the onus on individual women to overcome the pay gap overlooked quite a few additional factors. Or, as Michelle Obama recently commented, "It's not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn't work."
"I think it's really important to dispel the myth that women don't ask," Alexandra Dickinson, membership strategy lead and career expert at personal finance company SoFi, tells Bustle. Dickinson points to other factors at work, including the fact that "Women are perceived differently [than men] when they 'brag' about themselves, or anytime a woman is saying something good about herself. It's not necessarily that she's bragging, but it may be perceived that way."
Millennial women have the smallest gender pay gap of all age groups, with only a 10 percent average pay difference between male and female workers. However, 10 percent is still a lot, especially considering that women of our generation have been doing everything we were told would help us close the gap, from getting the majority of higher education degrees in this country to asking for raises at rates similar to our male peers. "We are asking, and we're not getting at the same rates," Dickinson says. "So that's where we need to focus our energies — rather than all these [pieces of professional advice] that are like, 'Get it, girl! Have more confidence!' OK, a lot of us are already doing that, and it's not working so, what else?"
"It's not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn't work."
Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center, tells Bustle that many conversations about women and pay negotiation also assume that this is only an issue for women with stable, white collar jobs where there will be no negative consequences for asking. "The whole conversation around salary negotiations assumes a relationship with your employer that just does not resemble reality for big swathes of the work force," Martin says.
For the many U.S. women employed in fields known for lower wages and minimal protections for workers — for instance, in 2016, women accounted for 94 percent of childcare workers, 70 percent of waiters and food servers, and 64 percent of telemarketers, according to the Boston Globe — better negotiation tactics may not help.
"To expect individual women [in low paying jobs] to bargain themselves out of pay discrimination is even more ridiculous than it is in the white collar jobs that people are often assuming when they talk about the wage gap," Martin says. She points out that there is also a gender wage gap in low wage jobs; for example, the 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists female retail workers as earning only 74.3 percent of what their male peers make.
Many pay gap discussions also ignore the LGBTQ pay gap. While some studies show queer women as earning more than heterosexual women, others show them as earning up to 25 percent less, and 24 percent of women who identify as lesbian or bisexual live below the poverty line, compared with 19 percent of women who identify as heterosexual. According to the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, women who identify as trans face far steeper pay gaps than cisgender women, and may lose work if they come out; a National Center for Transgender Equality survey reported that 47 percent of participants who identified as transgender or gender nonconforming had been denied a promotion, refused a job, or otherwise experienced negative professional consequences because of their identity. Trans people are twice as likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 than American averages. Those wage gaps are not the result of anyone "not asking;" they're the result of outright discrimination.
And Jessica Milli, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, points to a factor that has nothing to do with leaning in, out, or sideways: women are still expected to perform the majority of domestic labor, including childcare, in our country, because of insufficient family leave policies, and because in many workplaces, there is not "a lot of support for childcare, flexible working arrangements and things like that," Milli tells Bustle. As a result, women often end up pausing their careers for several years, working fewer hours, or taking on lower-paying jobs with more flexible schedules to accommodate childcare, which can lead to their earning 20 percent less than male peers over the longterm. That statistic comes from a series of studies looking at family culture in the U.S. and Scandinavia, which found no similar earnings drop or career change for fathers.
"If you frame it as not only a gender equity issue but more broadly a workplace equity issue that everybody has a stake in, that can be helpful."
When it comes to finding solutions to these multifaceted issues, a lot of the common wisdom falls flat. Not only can't these problems be fixed by "asking;" the responsibility shouldn't be on working women to fix a massive system of discrimination in the first place. But we also don't have to feel like there's nothing we can do to work for more equal pay. Several experts Bustle spoke with mentioned the importance of pay transparency, both on a corporate level (when a company makes its salaries known) and on an interpersonal level (when individual workers are open with each other about their salaries). "If you don't know what your colleagues are earning who are doing similar work as you [and] have a similar background," Milli says, "it's very difficult to know whether you're getting a fair salary or a fair wage."
Martin notes that "it's considered bad taste and bad form" by many people to discuss salaries, but a cultural change around talking about it is necessary. "[W]hen people are more transparent with each other about that information, it is much harder for unjustified pay disparities, for pay discrimination, to continue unchecked. There's much more pressure for employers to be correcting any inequities and ensuring that there's a really good reason if they're paying the man more to do this job than they're paying the woman."
Martin suggests that workers share salary information not just with female coworkers, but male ones as well: "Men can be harmed by irrational pay practices, too. If the employer is paying somebody because of how much they made in their last job for example, regardless of whether that's a lot more than they're paying [another] person doing the same job ... that can harm men as well as women. And so I think if you frame it as not only a gender equity issue but more broadly a workplace equity issue that everybody has a stake in, that can be helpful."
Milli says there are things that workers can do to create professional environments that destigmatize taking family and medical leave. Many new parents feel pressure to not take their full (and often unpaid) parental leave, out of fear that they will be seen as poor workers, and have their jobs downgraded as a result. If we act "really ... supportive and encouraging" of our coworkers who utilize these policies, we can help create an environment where there isn't a risk that taking time off for childcare will make you be seen as "not a team player."
Another big step workers can take, if they have this ability, is to push for more female leaders. "We need to have more women that are helping to make the [workplace] policies," Dickinson says. Managers often blow off this demand, rationalizing it with thoughts like, "'Oh, well I don't know any women who might be a good fit for this leadership role, so there probably aren't any,'" Dickinson says. But if you're able to, apply pressure in that arena. Managers should "[t]ry harder, look at who you're promoting."
There are also some smaller steps women can take in pursuit of more equal pay: Dickinson recommends seeking out a mentor or sponsor, someone more professionally advanced than you who "can give you give some guidance and perspective, but also drop your name once in a while." She also recommends having a "work buddy" who agrees to talk up your accomplishments while you talk up theirs, as outlined in The New York Times' gender editor Jessica Bennett's workplace guide Feminist Fight Club. Martin also notes that "Women who are members of unions have higher pay than women who are not and they also have more equal pay." If you're in a workplace that doesn't currently offer union membership, there are resources available to help start one.
Recognizing that this isn't a fight that everyone can be a part of might be one of the most important elements.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from all of this is that fighting the wage gap is not a private, solo activity, as it is often depicted in "ask for what you're worth" literature. Rather, the power of our voices is multiplied when we raise them together. Martin suggests, if it's possible, uniting a large group of employees and telling your employer, "'It's important to all of us that you, employer, are reviewing pay practices to see whether there are unjustified gender gaps and race gaps [here] and are correcting those.'" This, Martin notes, "can lead to change. It can lead to change if you can come together with your coworkers and say to your employer, 'We need more transparency around pay. When we have job announcements, it should include pay range information. There should be more public benchmarks for us to see how we are being paid compared to our peers.' That can make a change."
Milli emphasizes that you shouldn't feel pressured to discuss your pay if you think it might jeopardize your position. (Even though workplace policies against discussing salaries violate federal law, they are still common.) And recognizing that this isn't a fight that everyone can be a part of might be one of the most important elements. Someone whose family is relying on them to send money home, who is deeply in debt, is the sole supporter of a household, or is otherwise in a precarious financial situation, may feel like the stakes are too high to participate in any of these actions. Part of the struggle might be for those who can speak up to fight for everyone's rights the best they can, while also being sensitive of the boundaries and limits of those who can't.
But unlike the pay gap philosophies that rely on individual women to "ask," this one makes room for those who can't actively be involved. Because when we push for better policies and pay gap transparency, we are saying that all women deserve equal pay, not just those who "know how to ask" for it.