Women in the Workplace: Pushing for Pay Equality

Actress Jennifer Lawrence turned heads recently when she released an essay entitled “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?”, published in Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s newsletter Lenny. In the article, Lawrence writes of her experience as a woman in the film industry, discussing in particular her discovery that she was being paid significantly less than the male actors she co-starred with. Even though Lawrence’s career and the scale of her salary self-admittedly “aren’t exactly relatable,” her essay brings up an important issue for women of all backgrounds and career types. Though conditions have improved over the past several decades, wage inequality is still pervasive and continues to pose a difficulty for women in the workplace.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR)’s 2015 status report, if American women’s relative earnings continue to increase at the same rate they have been since 1960, the national gap between women’s and men’s median annual earnings will not close until 2058—and this projection assumes that there is no glass ceiling on wage progress. Data indicates that Florida may be the first state to reach wage parity, in 2038. But alarmingly, the IWPR projects that five states will not hit this bar until next century. The state with the slowest rate of wage progression, Wyoming, will not achieve pay equality until 2159. New York, meanwhile, could achieve equal pay by 2049.

As the statistics indicate, even though the wage gap persists in all 50 states, some are much better off than others. Currently, New York State ranks sixth in the nation overall for women’s employment and earnings. The IWPR reports that New York’s female-to-male earnings ratio is also the highest in the country, with full-time employed women earning 87.6% of their male counterparts’ salaries. (The ratio in Louisiana, the lowest-ranked state, is 66.7%.) But even in New York, that 12.4% gap is too high. The IWPR estimates that for college-educated women, cumulative losses from the gender wage gap exceed three quarters of a million dollars by age 59. So what can we do to fix it?

In her essay, Jennifer Lawrence wrote, “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid...I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.” Women on the whole, Lawrence notes, often shy away from hard salary negotiation for fear of being judged as “difficult” or “spoiled,” a common response Lawrence attributes to gender socialization.

It’s an unfortunate reality that assertive women are perceived differently than assertive men are. Self-assured men are considered “confident,” while women with similar attributes are called “bossy.” Carnegie Mellon economics professor Linda Babcock, who studies negotiation and the gender divide, has found that women are more likely to be anxious about asking for raises and promotions than men are. In a 2005 paper, Babcock and two colleagues also found that when employees initiate salary negotiations, male employers tend to penalize the women more often and more harshly than the men. Therefore, women’s propensity to initiate negotiation less often can be explained by the negative response they receive when they attempt to do so. Coupled with fears of workplace harassment, discrimination, and other forms of retaliation, it is no wonder that fewer women than men actively pursue a raise.

While the wage gap certainly isn’t the result of women lacking assertiveness, and while encouraging women to pursue raises will not solve the myriad external factors which contribute to the gap, it doesn’t hurt for female employees to attempt to combat the issue internally. Despite the risk associated with negotiation, women should push for higher salaries and better positions. Our firm has previously written on how to negotiate a raise, hereAs a woman, the guidelines are no different, but since women are particularly vulnerable to criticism and negative feedback when negotiating, it’s worth it to do a little more preparation by recognizing some of the common pitfalls that face women in the workplace.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, identifies several ways that women can improve their likelihood of advancing in the workplace despite the systemic obstacles working against them. She writes that due to workplace culture, women often have more difficulty establishing relationships at work, and, when they do, tend to move laterally rather than pursuing friendships with those in positions above them. Maintaining consciousness of one’s professional network can make a significant difference in, first, a woman’s confidence to pursue more money or a better position, and second, the likelihood of her negotiations being well-received.

Additionally, Sandberg writes that women should work to recognize and combat “imposter syndrome”: the feeling that one doesn’t belong in a prestigious position, or is faking one’s success. Successful and ambitious women experience this phenomenon more often than any other group, and it can be discouraging. Taking extra care to map out accomplishments and detail successful work initiatives can greatly help women seeking to negotiate, both psychologically and professionally. Women who enter negotiations well-prepared will undoubtedly be more confident about their position, and be more convincing to employers that they are deserving of an increase in salary or status.

Finally, women should make a particular effort to inform themselves of what their work is worth. Like Jennifer Lawrence, many women are afraid to push too hard, even if they suspect that they’re being short-changed. Others are satisfied with their salaries and assume that they are being paid fairly. You might even be happy with your current compensation and feel that it’s generous. Still, don’t hesitate to ask questions and do internal reconnaissance. Even though money is often a taboo subject, being frank with fellow employees or other acquaintances within the industry can be the key to learning what you’re really worth.

So, what is the takeaway for women in New York State and across the country who face the prospect of wage inequality for the rest of their lifetimes?  Be persistent! The wage gap might be closing slowly, but by keeping vigilant and recognizing the necessary obstacles to overcome, women in the modern workplace can harness the greatest resource available to them in the gender gap battle—themselves.