This morning Barack Obama signed into law the first legislation of his presidency, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, extending the statute of limitations on paycheck discrimination for men and women like Ms. Ledbetter, who earned less than her male colleagues while doing the same work.
The bill is a victory for women and other marginalized groups and is long overdue. That said, though, I seriously doubt it will make much of a dent in America’s 78-cents-for-every-dollar gender pay disparity because overt bias is much less of a problem than the inability or unwillingness to negotiate. Simply, the problem isn’t that American women aren’t getting raises; it’s that they aren’t asking for them.
It’s been well documented that in America, and probably around the world, boys are taught to argue while girls are raised to acquiesce, and from the sandbox to the boardroom, pushy women are seen in a very different light than pushy men. So it isn’t any wonder that more often than not, when Dick and Jane are each offered their proverbial 78 cents, Dick will negotiate his way up to a dollar, while Jane will politely accept what she’s offered, reasoning that the company, knowing the market and her qualifications, probably is offering a fair rate.
So now the company is paying Jane 22 percent less than Dick for doing the same job—but they probably would be willing to pay Jane what they’re paying Dick. Only Jane never asked.
The same is true when it comes to raises and bonuses—you usually aren’t going to get one unless you ask for it. The fact is that in business, unlike in college, no one is assigned to track your successes but you. Your failures, yes, but successes, not so much. Social scientists have long puzzled over why women succeed in huge numbers in academia then fall behind their male peers almost immediately after graduation, and the answer is simple. The problem isn’t women’s all-consuming (and highly overstated) desire to make babies; it’s that while her male colleague is in the boss’s office asking for a raise, she’s sitting patiently at her desk, waiting for somebody to notice all the great work she’s doing.
None of this is to say that women like Lilly Ledbetter who earn less than men for doing the same job aren’t victims of discrimination or that they don’t deserve the right to sue for damages. But regardless of the law, few women will ever have the opportunity to see these wrongs righted in court. Every woman, though, has both the ability and the responsibility to ask to be paid what she’s worth.
Come back next week for How to Negotiate Better Pay without Sounding Like a Bitch.
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