Do Women Really Ask for Raises Less Frequently Than Men?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 30 2009 5:10 PM

Do Women Really Ask for Raises Less Frequently Than Men?

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In the New York Times last week, Joanne Lipman declared that women's progress has stalled because " we've focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes. " She tells one story with a precise tally: "In my time as an editor," she writes, "many, many men have come through my door asking for a raise or demanding a promotion. Guess how many women have ever asked me for a promotion? I'll tell you. Exactly ... zero." Reluctance to ask for a raise is, in Lipman's eyes, a problem of the prevalence of trying to be a "passive 'good girl.'"

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Is she right that women don't ask for raises? Amanda Fortini, writing a response to Lipman on Salon , skewers the idea as "antiquated" and offers a counterexample: "My mother, who runs a marketing company, tells me her female employees do in fact ask for promotions and raises, often with a greater sense of entitlement than the men."

Who is right, in this sample-of-one face-off? Linda Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, has done research on this question. In her book Women Don't Ask , Babcock and co-author Sara Laschever discuss studies and experiments they've conducted, which suggest there is, in fact, a pretty noticeable discrepancy between men and women's propensity to negotiate for a raise.

One study compared the starting salaries of students graduating with master's degrees from Carnegie Mellon, and found that men's starting salaries exceeded women's by an average of almost $4,000. Because these salaries were set before the men or women had started working, Babcock looked at the process for negotiating salaries and found something startling: while Carnegie Mellon's Career Services department strongly advised all students to negotiate for their starting pay, only 7 percent of women had asked for more money than their initial offer. In contrast, 57 percent of men-8 times as many-asked for more money. Moreover, Babcock calculated that the starting salary difference for those who negotiated was on average $4,053 higher than those who did not. That number-almost the exact discrepancy between the starting salary of men and women in general-suggested that if women had simply negotiated for higher starting offers the pay gap would have narrowed dramatically.

Babcock and her colleagues followed this finding with a laboratory experiment designed to test women's willingness to ask for more. The researchers asked students to play the game Boggle and told them they would receive between three and 10 dollars. After four rounds of playing, the game ended and a researcher would give the subject three dollars, saying "Here's three dollars. Is three dollars OK?" If the subject asked for more money, the experimenter would give him or her 10 dollars.

The result? Nine times more men than women asked for more money-a discrepancy similar to the one in the study on starting salary. The women in the study rated their own performance at Boggle as highly as men did, and complained as much about the low $3 rate. The only difference between them and the men was that the men were much more likely to ask for more pay. So Lipman was on to something.

Photograph of stacks of money by Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images.

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