Women Can’t End the Wage Gap on Their Own

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An equal pay for women demonstration in London, 1969. Photo: Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, an annual event that marks another year of failing to make serious progress toward paying women the same wage for doing the same work as men. The equal pay movement is as old as the Industrial Revolution, but in the modern era, it’s become less of a rallying cry for businesses to get it together and more of a self-help opportunity.

This year, Levo League, which provides networking opportunities and resources for women in the early stages of their career, has launched a campaign called Ask4More. In a promotional video, Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg tell women they should be negotiating for more pay. “I think this is our moment. And I think your generation is the generation that changes this,” Sandberg says. Statistics from a recent Levo League survey flash across the screen: 58 percent of women say they don’t have the information to negotiate successfully; 56 percent report not knowing what to ask for; 55 percent don’t negotiate because they don’t want to come across as pushy.

Those fears are justified. Research shows that women pay a social price when they ask for higher wages. One researcher has repeatedly found evidence “that the advice that women stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations may not have the intended effect. It may even backfire,” according to a New Yorker article last year. And even the experts in the human resources department acknowledge that it’s hard to find information on what you should be paid. A survey found that more than half of HR executives wish they had company policies that made salary information more transparent. Actual information on wages might be murky, but the deeper problem is clear: It’s not that women lack the guts to negotiate. It’s that they lack the knowledge and the social support for doing so.

And so, on the eve of yet another Equal Pay Day, it’s time to shift the focus from women to the people who employ them. Yeah, it’s good to train yourself to ask for more money. In the short term, this is probably your best shot at fair compensation. As a freelancer, I haggle over my pay rate almost every week, and it does get easier the more I do it. But asking women to take responsibility for closing the pay gap with their ace negotiating skills is sort of like teaching women self-defense as a way of addressing sexual assault. It puts the burden on women to figure this out as individuals — it doesn’t ask much of employers, and it doesn’t really address the bigger issue.

So what would? There are a few theories. One approach is to conclude that the negotiating process is inherently flawed, and do away with salary negotiations altogether. Ellen Pao, who recently lost a high-profile Silicon Valley discrimination case against her former employer, announced this week that in her role as interim CEO of Reddit she would be doing exactly that. “Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair.”

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Most government jobs offer a fixed salary based on your title and years of experience, with no room for negotiation. “It seems to work well for women,” says Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She notes that the wage gap is smaller in the public sector. But, she adds, “It will also be interesting to see how this will work in an industry where people are used to negotiating.” In Silicon Valley, where competition for plum hires is often fierce, it’s hard to imagine many firms adopting Pao’s policy.

Another approach is to negotiate, but on very open terms. Employers tend to be tight-lipped about salaries, and that policy can hurt women. Lilly Ledbetter, who brought her salary discrimination case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2008, found out she was earning less than her male colleagues for doing the same work only after an anonymous note tipped her off. What if she’d been able to get information on the salary range for her position from her HR department, not an anonymous tipster? After all, worth on the job market is relative. If you don’t know what other people make for the same work, it’s impossible to know you’re getting less than you should.

Transparency can be a lot easier in theory than in practice, though. In many industries, job titles are almost meaningless when it comes to conveying what sort of work that person does every day. Hegewisch says that, rather than just publishing titles and salaries, employers could be giving employees a range of valuable information about how the bosses make decisions about starting salaries, raises, and promotions. “They need to be more transparent about the wage range that comes with different occupations and about promotion opportunities and what you need to advance,” Hegewisch says. In other words, it’s not about paying everyone the same wage if they have the same title. It’s about being able to clearly and openly explain why certain employees earn more — whether it’s due to previous experience or better performance — and not just say, “Well, the guy demanded more and that’s why he makes more.”

And what about those guys who demand more? They can actually be incredibly powerful allies when it comes to closing the gap. Many HR departments aren’t transparent, but individual men (and women) can choose to be more open about how much money they make. They don’t have to tweet their salaries or anything, but when it’s performance review time, they could offer their female colleagues some one-on-one information about their salaries — even if it’s a pay range and not a hard number. Just think: If Lilly Ledbetter’s male co-workers had been willing to tell her how much they made, she wouldn’t have steadily fallen behind for decades. She could have used that information to negotiate on her own behalf.

Rather than just encouraging women to ask for more money, on Equal Pay Day, we should be asking everyone to push employers for more clarity on how they make salary decisions. And we could all be more honest with our colleagues, especially those who have similar titles, about how much we’re earning ourselves. I support campaigns like Ask4More, but they aren’t enough. They need to be paired with a concerted effort to make employers step up, too. We can call it Ask4MoreOpenness, or, if we’re feeling bold, OfferTheSame.