Wage and Worth
Equal pay for equal work—an all-too familiar demand. Last week the Forward published its annual survey of salaries in Jewish organizations, and yesterday the New York Times published a piece by Jessica Bennett calling on women to ramp up their negotiating skills.
Bennett remembers asking for a raise when she worked at Newsweek:
“When I tried to figure out why my salary was comparatively lower, it occurred to me: couldn’t I have simply asked for more? The problem was that I was terrified at the prospect. When I finally mustered up the nerve, I made my pitch clumsily, my voice shaking and my face beet red. I brought along a printed list of my accomplishments, yet I couldn’t help but feel boastful saying them out loud. While waiting to hear whether I would get the raise (I did), I agonized over whether I should have asked at all. This fear of asking is a problem for many women: we are great advocates for others, but paralyzed when it comes to doing it for ourselves.”
Many of us can identify with the tension between advocating for oneself while trying to remain humble. It’s a hard line to walk, especially if you’re a woman. Also, if we approach salary negotiations the way men do—making eye contact, sitting squarely, a calm yet firm communication style—women, sadly, are often viewed by their potential employers as “pushy,” “cocky,” or “aggressive.”
It’s clear from Leah Berkenwald’s post here a year ago that Jessica Bennett’s call for women to advocate for themselves more forcefully is not new. Initiatives at colleges like Smith and Carnegie Mellon and the WAGE Project take aim at the problem by training and empowering women to negotiate successfully for equal salaries. While I support such programs, I argue that they address only part of the equation: employers of both genders should undergo training of their own.
Several years ago, when I worked at another feminist non-profit, I was being groomed for a promotion. During the very important meeting in which I was to be offered the job, I experienced unmistakable resistance, bordering on scorn, when I attempted to negotiate. I was raised by a mother who worked much of her life as a motivational speaker and a father who grew up bargaining in Egyptian bazaars and Israeli shuks. I was scared going into that meeting but felt ready to listen and ready to negotiate. I was shocked when I learned that that the woman in charge of hiring was offended by my negotiating. A few days later, I had a follow up meeting with the president, also a woman; when I was offered a salary that was substantially lower than what had been advertised, I pointed out this discrepancy. The president said I was being aggressive but promised to look into it. She did, and indeed the starting salary was thousands more than I had originally been offered.
In the meeting I was very aware of my language—both verbal and non-verbal; I was attuned to the subtleties of the moment; I weighed my words and framed my statements to be as clear, calm, and as professional as possible. And yet, I was still seen in a negative light. I was not particularly warm or friendly; I did not exhibit typical, socialized, “feminine” behavior. This was business, and I was treating it as such. I wonder though, if I were a man, would I have received a different response?
I believe that most women (present company included) have deep-seated money and self-worth issues, which surface even in feminist organizations. The wage gap is a structural problem that will only be resolved by public policy and private action. But I can’t help thinking that it’s not just “the man” keeping women down; sometimes, it’s other women, who have likely been through their own negotiating (or)deals, who make it hard to achieve equal pay for equal work. It’s the responsibility of all of us, employees and employers, men and women, to address this inequity. If we condition ourselves enough, and in the right way, I believe the great pay gap and negotiating chasms will soon be a thing of the past.