The wage gap between men and women presents a complex social problem: Commentators can’t agree what causes it, how vast it is, how we ought to close it, or whether it’s even a problem at all. While we hash it out, women continue to bring in paychecks representing fractions on the male dollar. In the New York Times this weekend, Jessica Bennett pins down one sliver of the gap that some women can fix in just few hours: “Many women just don’t negotiate, or are penalized if they do,” she writes. The solution? Teach them to ask for more money. But be sure that they ask nicely.
A pair of studies conducted at Carnegie Melon illustrate the problem: In one, male graduates of the school’s management program were four times as likely to negotiate their first salaries out of college than their female peers; in another, women who did attempt to negotiate were seen as overly aggressive, unless they “conformed to feminine stereotypes”—smiles and nods—when asking for more.
“The good news,” Bennett concludes, is that “all of these things can be learned.” She sits in on a negotiation class at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx, where a coach from the WAGE Project has swooped in to teach young women to up their self-promotion skills before they enter the workforce. First, the coach, “holds up a stack of pink dollar bills,” each bill decreasing in size, to represent how much these women are likely to earn compared to a man’s bigger, greener salary: “Line them up next to a real dollar, and the difference is stark: 77 cents for white women; 69 cents for black women. The final dollar—so small that it can fit in a coin purse, represents 57 cents, for Latina women.” Then, she teaches these women how to make up the difference on their own. A woman’s “approach to negotiation is crucial,” Bennett writes. “It’s a balancing act. Ask, but ask nicely. Demand, but with a smile. It’s not fair—yet understanding these dynamics can be the key to overcoming them.”
After class, Bennett wishes “there had been a version of it when I was in school.” I do, too. As a worker, I appreciate the practicality of the approach: Employers have little incentive to straight-up offer women more money; government solutions are unpopular and ineffective; social change is slow. If an individual employee hopes to increase her pay, she’ll have to do it herself.
But as a woman, I’m not eager to defer to men in the workplace—i.e. smile and play nice—in order to achieve parity in our direct deposits. And as a feminist, I’m wary of a strategy that will only help those women who get the memo. This is the kind of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” advice that gets Steve Harvey the side-eye when he attempts to apply it to our love lives. Acting like good girls in the boardroom could help up our individual paychecks, but it contributes to another problem where women are forced to shroud their competency in feminine deference. That mean’s we’re still working harder than men to get paid what they do. And biases don’t end at the negotiating table. In workplaces where women are dismissed as “too aggressive” for asking for a fair wage, navigating sexist expectations is a part of the job.
These tricks may help individual women raise their pay. (Then again, maybe they won’t—Bennett cites research by Harvard’s Hanna Riley Bowles that shows if you misfire on the feminine act, you risk a lost offer.) But the strategy is unlikely to upend the persistent wage gap that affects all women in the workplace, including those who don’t receive WAGE’s coaching services, which run from $75 too $150 per hour. Hiring help to tweak your gender presentation is an elite solution to a system-wide problem that runs deeper than smiles and nods—the precipitous drop in salary figures for black and Latina women makes that clear. I don’t begrudge women who learn these tactics to bump their pay—I eagerly absorbed them myself while reading Bennett’s story. But I’m still waiting for a solution that sounds more like social change and less like self-help.