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Why Women Undersell Their Worth

NYC recently passed a law that makes it illegal for companies to ask applicants about their salary history. More than 20 other states are considering similar legislation. During the signing ceremony, Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed this action was about “fixing a broken history.”  

But, here’s the thing: While I’m glad this bill has become a law (cue Schoolhouse Rock video), it’s not going to be the magic bullet – particularly if we continue to undervalue mothers.

Say what!?you might be thinking. Anyone who has seen the P&G commercials that accompany the Olympics or tries to find flowers on the morning of Mother’s Day knows mothers are beloved. Revered, they might be, but by and large, they are not respected. Respect means valuing the work that is done, and value means that a society is willing to put money into what it claims it believes is important.

There are three reasons that this legislation is insufficient.

  1. First, the law still permits companies to ask applicants what they hope to receive in terms of compensation. Some research has indicated that women undersell themselves, and therefore this type of questioning opens the door to gender bias in employment practices. Glassdoor reports that men in the U.S. are successful 15% of the times that they negotiate their salary while women are successful only 4% of the time. Moreover, the gap of those who take their first offer widens, with workers aged 45-54 showing a remarkable split: 77% of women accept the first offer, while 56% of men do the same.
  2. Second, research indicates that women undersell themselves because they are not as confident about their skill set. Hewlett Packard’s results show men apply for positions where they fulfill merely 60% of the company’s requirements whereas women will only apply for positions in which they fulfill 100% of the requirements. The NYC law does little to address either of the above issues.
  3. Ultimately, while the law restricts companies from asking how women were discriminated against in the past, it does little to correct the problems going forward. And, one of the biggest problems for working women is motherhood. The wage gap between mothers and child-free women is significantly larger than the gap between men and womenSome point out that the wage gap for women who prepare, enter, and maintain their employment exactly as a man will earn a nearly equal salary, which means that gender bias doesn’t exist.

What does that say about what we think of motherhood then? A culture that respects mothers understands that women will have to have some concessions if they are going to have biological children. Moreover, a culture that respects motherhood would not put companies in the position of having to take an economic loss as a result of hiring a female candidate.

In my Introduction to Gender classes, college students, many of whom are just about to embark on their first serious job hunt, get stymied when we talk about how to facilitate equality in employment practices. At the end of the day, the reasons for hiring a woman over a man when both are equally qualified are hard to find when faced with the facts that women are more likely to raise insurance rates, are more likely to take advantage of FMLA leave, and are more likely to not return following the birth of a child (sometimes after using maternity leave). The costs for training, replacement, and alignment with fair business practices make hiring women a tough sell even for companies that want to show their progressive politics.

Like most people, I wasn’t too surprised when I heard several people over the years admit (off the record) that gender issues are discussed during the hiring process. While few would hire a less qualified male candidate, when most other factors are equal, the woman has a glaring strike against her regardless of whether she even wants to become a mom.

Now, if you think women aren’t on to these facts, think again. Women are still told in hushed voices that they should remove their engagement or wedding ring before interviews, even while men are instructed to find one to put on if they don’t have one. (Companies see married men as more stable and trustworthy.)

We can spitball many ideas for why women are unsuccessful when the negotiate for a fair salary, but I have two guesses. One, fewer women work overall due to the cultural expectations we place on mothers, so those that do work either love their career or need the paycheck. In either case, women would be inclined to take that first offer. Two, good ol’ soft bias continues to inform hiring practices. Regardless of which approach you take, the law that NYC passed will do little to correct the problem.

We can blame women for not asking for more money and try to make it harder for companies to continue the avalanche of low pay that accrues over time when women settle for less pay in their first couple jobs, or we can consider whether their logic in underselling themselves is prevailing because they know it’s their only chance to get employed. Only when the second is more understood, can we move forward with solutions that matter.

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“We can spitball many ideas for why women are unsuccessful when the negotiate for a fair salary, but I have two guesses...”