Guest Post: The Feminine Tightrope Walk

By Myra I. Roche, M.S., C.G.C.

Myra I. Roche, M.S., C.G.C. is an Associate Professor in Pediatrics, Director of Pediatric Genetic Counseling Services, and an investigator in the Center for Genomics and Society at UNC, Chapel Hill.  Her research interests include parents’ understandings of genetic information and their genetic counseling experiences following acceptance of newborn screening for fragile X syndrome.  She co-edited An Ethics Casebook for Genetic Counselors: Ethical Discourse for the Practice of Genetic Counseling, serves on the JGC editorial board, and was chair of the ABGC Certification Exam Committee.  She has worked at UNC for the past 25 years, living in the same house for the last 24.  Her favorite past-time is walking.

“Women are notoriously bad at asking for raises, and as 95% of our field is women, we have suffered the consequences.”

This statement recently appeared on the NSGC listserv with a plea for participation in a salary survey, an extremely important task for a young, thinly-populated profession like genetic counseling. What struck me hard, though, was the echo of a well-worn misconception promising a simple explanation for the pay discrepancy between the genders. The answer: women just aren’t good enough- at being men. This evaluation of women’s negotiating skills is not new and is best summed up by Professor Henry Higgins’ exasperated rhetorical question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” But shouldn’t we be suspicious when righting an inequality requires the “have nots” get better at imitating the “haves”? The fault lines here are clearly drawn.

Yes, the playing (and paying) field between the genders remains uneven. Sorry to be the one to bring this up for the 15 billionth time. Currently women make, on average, 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Analyzing salaries across genders is full of pitfalls but even after several corrections, the disparity remains (pdf). If you don’t know the facts, see this National Committee on Pay Equity Quiz.

Admonitions that women have only themselves to blame are old but the twist, “thanks for dragging me down with you”, strikes a new, blatant tone that is shocking. If women would just stiffen up their collective lips, stride into their bosses’ offices carrying their weight in unequivocal salary data to prove they are underpaid, well, what’s been stopping them? But if poor negotiating is the culprit, how can it be that women, long stereotyped as being superior wheedlers (particularly of men) to get their way, would inexplicably fail to wield these same skills when more money is the goal. Is this simply a lack of gumption?

As every good negotiator knows you have to be ready and able to walk when the answer is no. To walk, you need options. And good shoes. Women have had fewer options than men because they can become pregnant- something that was, until only an evolutionary blink ago, uncontrollable. This monthly roulette, combined with fewer educational and financial resources, left them less able to walk away because they were barefoot, pregnant, or both.

Looking up from our respective grindstones, we see that women, ages 23- 30, have, apparently, arrived. In those who are college-educated and, not accidentally, without children, we find our proof of principle. Their salaries are comparable, or even exceed, their male counterparts.

Have they figured out how to act like men? Do they have more gumption? Or, do they just have better walking shoes?

Some have argued that women are very savvy negotiators because they understand how risky it is to ignore the social costs implicit in these transactions. When shown a video of a man or a woman asking for a raise, judges of both genders agreed that, yes, certainly, the man should get a raise. But the woman, speaking from the identical script? Nope, and furthermore, we don’t like her either because she is way too pushy. For a woman. Same script, opposite decisions.

For a women wanting a raise, Henry Higgins’ advice was dead wrong. Don’t act more like a man. Act more like a (stereotypical) woman. Be warm and friendly, show more concern for others than yourself, and figure out how to make the raise your team leader’s idea, not yours. Tellingly, women’s reluctance to negotiate for higher pay occurred only when the judge was a man.

Is more money always, unequivocally, without a doubt, better? For many women the answer is clearly no. Certainly not always better than being socially ostracized otherwise what else could be stopping them? As women walk toward more money, they are, at the same time, often walking away. Away from their safety net of people who individually and collectively support them. Add in children, elderly parents, and lots of other factors and the tightrope beings to sway even more, making walking a very precarious choice.

Yes, definitely, arm yourself with all the salary data you can, stride briskly into that office, and try to convince your boss that it was her idea. I applaud your efforts even as I keep my fingers crossed. I hope you get the raise you believe will make you happier. But sometime soon, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Maybe more money will make you happier. But for women in other shoes, the figures may add up differently. No need to shame others who have done their own math and calculated that the timing is wrong, they can’t afford to waste precious social capital or, frankly, their feet hurt. To imply that colleagues who are not actively negotiating their salary are somehow responsible for anyone’s inadequate income smacks of nothing more than just shoddy reasoning.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Elana Jones for her insightful editorial comments.


Filed under Guest Blogger

6 responses to “Guest Post: The Feminine Tightrope Walk

  1. Suzanna

    Thank you for adding this perspective to the discussion!

  2. laura hercher

    Thank you for this very interesting and articulate post. The subject reminds me of a very interesting TED talk by Sheryl Sandburg that is very worth 10 minutes — she considers mostly the other side of the lower-pay coin: the lack of women in the most senior and powerful positions across many sectors of society. She comes to a different conclusion about “acting like a man,” but at the same time acknowledges the cost, and the lack of easy answers.

  3. Deborah Wham

    There is a book by Paula England called ‘Comparable Worth’ that looks at the equal pay debate differently. A big part of this issue is not that women are paid less than men for the same jobs, or make less due to absences from the workplace due to child rearing. Rather, it is that professions that are considered more typically female will pay less than those that are typically male. A good example is the comparison of the skill sets of a daycare or nursing home worker (female profession) vs. zookeeper (male profession). The zookeeper, regardless of gender will make more money, due to the perception of the job as more masculine. The book is from 1992, but it is still applicable.

  4. jehannine

    Thanks for opening this issue up for more in depth discussion in this forum. Its a really important conversation to have! Although there is certainly not an absolute relationship between womens salaries and our willingness to negotiate, there is no doubt that there is a connection. While it is nice to imagine that if we work hard/do a good job we will be automatically and
    appropriately awarded with the content of our salaries, the reality is that if we don’t ask we dont get. As women, we are less likely to have been socialized to do ask for things like this. There’s a great book on this: Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Babcock and Laschever.

    In this post, the argument against salary negotiation was essentially twofold: first, women should not have to act like men. Second, that there is potentially too much to lose, particularly in terms of being liked and supported, but also potentially in terms of having to walk away from ones job if the negotiation was unsuccessful.

    In the context of asking for a raise, “acting like a man” would equate to women valuing themselves and asking for what they feel they deserve. I am utterly unabashed in feeling strongly that these should not only be acceptable traits in women, but we should actively be nurturing them. While I agree that there is fault implied in suggesting that women should act more like men, to me that fault rests not with individual women for not being “good enough at negotiating” but with society at large for socializing girls in the way we do.

    With regard to what is to lose by negotiating: I am not aware of any research that has shown that when a woman asks for more money at work her family or friends like her less, so I don’t agree that by asking for a raise you risk losing your social support network. Similarly, asking for an increase or negotiating starting salary does not mean you have to walk away from your job if you are unsuccessful in getting what you want – you can still make the decision to take the job/stay for the same money (and asking for a raise is not a sackable offense). But, there is evidence that casual observers rate women who ask for raises as less likable than they do men. At the root of this is unconscious bias. We all (men and women) are biased against women
    in a number of ways. There is a very good but frightening article by the American Association of Medical Colleges on the subject that you can download here:

    Click to access aibvol9no2.pdf

    This is a problem that we could chose to try to consciously increase our awareness of, and identify and challenge it in our own thoughts and actions.

    The quote that opened the post was: “Women are notoriously bad at asking for raises, and as 95% of our field is women, we have suffered the consequences.” – this caused offense because of the implication of “thanks for dragging me down with you”. My own perspective on this (I trained as a GC myself, and am now an academic who runs a research group, and an employer of other GCs) is that the salaries the GCs in my group get come from competitively obtained grants. Funding agencies will only accept (fund) GC salaries that are in the range of existing GC salaries. So, I would say that is that there is truth to the assertion that by not negotiating for our salaries, we are contributing to a lower salary for our colleagues.

    The last question is essentially is money important? The answer is obvious, not only does money does provide material comforts, it is critically important in allowing us to take care of those we love – saving for kids college, medical bills for aging parents, retirement etc. And, as taking care of those we love is typically characterized as a feminine trait, perhaps we can try to reframe salary negotiation in this light? OK, that might be too much of a push 🙂

    P.S. Sorry to be a stickler, but I did want to point out an inaccuracy in the information in the original post. An article was cited as
    saying that in younger age groups women earn more than men – the article does not say this. What it does say is that there were some geographical regions in which  women earned more than men, BUT more women had college degrees. The article went on to say that on circumstances where all else was equal (men and women had college degrees at the same rate) men earned more. These salary comparisons are only valid if all else is equal.

    • Myra

      Thanks for your comments. My goal was to point out the complexities involved in these kinds of decisions, not to discourage anyone from negotiating. It is relatively common for women (and men) to be more successful at negotiating salaries when they have another offer. The point is not so much that women “have” to act like men but rather, when they are perceived in that way, it tends to work against them, at least in our current climate. I agree that societal expectations should be the focus of the “blame” not the individual and felt the original quote shifted this blame, unfairly.

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