It is a classic double bind – we are told that women do not get equal pay for equal work because we do not demand it, yet when we try to negotiate higher salaries in the same way that men do, we are faced with hostility. So while the decision that many women make to accept a first offer without asking for more might be contributing to the 11 percent pay gap that still exists between men and women’s salaries, it is a completely rational decision based on the correct assumption that we will be punished for the attempt in a way that men are not. According to a Washington Post review of research done at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon:
…women's reluctance [to negotiate for higher wages] was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were ‘less nice’.For example, one study:
used actors who recorded videos of themselves asking for more money or accepting salaries they had been offered. A new group of 285 volunteers were again asked whether they would be willing to work with the candidates after viewing the videos. Men tended to rule against women who negotiated but were less likely to penalize men; women tended to penalize both men and women who negotiated, and preferred applicants who did not ask for more.
So it seems that we are caught in a negative feedback loop – we do not ask for raises because we are punished when we do, yet the scarcity of women who negotiate bolsters that idea that negotiating women are more aggressive than is appropriate for their sex. So what tends to be beneficial for the individual woman (keeping quiet and accepting the initial offer) ends up being harmful for the group as we conform to a harmful stereotype. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon poses the question of what we can do in the face of what seems “an impossible conundrum.” The first answer that occurs to me is that we should be aware of the tendency to punish assertive women and make sure that we are not subconsciously participating in the same behaviors that hurt us. Women and socially conscious men can choose to encourage rather than punish women who seek equal pay. The second part is, of course, to also hold others accountable when they knowingly or subconsciously penalize women for assertive behaviors that would be acceptable in men. Pandagon does offer one more step – collective action when we are able to recognize such examples of sexism. One or two complaints are easily ignored, but as it turns out, there are a lot of women in the world…