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Rampell: Women can’t trust karma to fix gender pay gap

🕐 4 min read

Catherine Rampell

WASHINGTON – Don’t ask. Just trust that the system will reward you for your compliance.

That is the message Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella delivered recently when prodded for advice to give women who are reluctant to request raises.

“It’s not really about asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along,” said Nadella. Shoving his foot deeper down his esophagus, he continued: “Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know, ‘That’s the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to.'”

Again, this was advice to women, who earn less than men in almost every occupation on Earth. Also, such advice was delivered at an Oct. 9 conference for women in tech, an industry in which, for many years, the biggest employers illegally conspired to depress employee pay. Sure sounds like a system workers can trust.

Two basic take-aways about Nadella’s comments, which he has since retracted (including in a company-wide email encouraging employees who think they deserve raises to speak up): 1) It was terrible advice for employees who want more money, if understandable when coming from a boss; 2) it is what many women already do, which is part of the reason why the gender pay gap persists.

This should go without saying, but bosses are not in the business of payinganything more than they need to for talent. Payroll is not a charitable activity.

Employers may elect to pay good salaries for higher-quality workers, or to improve productivity by making workers believe they’re being paid fairly or even generously. But generally speaking, employers’ interests and employees’ interests are not aligned when it comes to setting compensation, just as the buyers and sellers of any product (labor included) have opposite incentives when it comes to setting prices. Which is why workers need to negotiate actively for higher pay rather than wait for it to be benevolently bestowed upon them. (It’s also why I don’t think it was particularly crazy for a chief executive to respond the way Nadella did, despite the outrage his remarks generated.)

Many people have trouble mustering courage to negotiate with bosses or adversaries. But women seem especially averse to haggling.

Research by Carnegie Mellon’s Linda Babcock and others has found that men initiate negotiations about four times as often as women, and they report less apprehension when doing so. Even outside of work, women are loath to negotiate, preferring to pay as much as $1,353 more to avoid haggling over the price of a car (which perhaps helps explain why the majority of Saturn buyers were female).

Among my own group of (ambitious, talented) girlfriends, I often hear a reluctance to negotiate for better terms of employment. Hard work will be rewarded, we all believe, and if we merely keep our heads down and achieve, employers will award us unprompted. Even Maria Klawe – the president of Harvey Mudd College and the person who elicited Nadella’s controversial comments – said she regretted that she didn’t negotiate her compensation in either her current job or her previous one and advised others not to follow her example.

Differential willingness to negotiate and ask for raises has real, measurable financial consequences, including the reality that women will get less money than men for the same work. Even if all requests for raises are not successful – and right now, wages don’t seem to be rising for anyone – enough of them will be so that, if one group asks and another one doesn’t, you’ll see a gap in pay between the two.

Why are women so reluctant to negotiate? One common theory is that we fear being seen as selfish or, worse, unlikable. This may not be as shortsighted as it sounds. Babcock’s research has also found that women who ask for raises do get more money but are perceived as less likable than men who do the exact same thing – and women may fear that being disliked will hold back their careers over the long run. This seems to be the “karma” Nadella referred to: Your boss will like you more if you don’t demand more money. Especially if you’re female.

Which is why closing the gender pay gap requires not only encouraging more women to step up and ask for more but also, among other things, training bosses to not hold it against women for asking.

Catherine Rampell’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.  

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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