For women in business, the squeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease

January 9, 2012

This piece is the first in a three-part series of myth busters about women in business, authored by Catalyst’s Nancy Carter and Christine Silva.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as the saying goes. But is this true for women in business?

Our recent Catalyst report, The Myth of the Ideal Worker , reveals that women do ask for raises and promotions. They just don’t get as much in return.

The research focused on career paths of high-potential men and women, drawing on thousands of MBA graduates from top schools around the world. Catalyst found that, among those who had moved on from their first post-MBA job, there was no significant difference in the proportion of women and men who asked for increased compensation or a higher position.

Yet the rewards were different.

Women who initiated such conversations and changed jobs post MBA experienced slower compensation growth than the women who stayed put. For men, on the other hand, it paid off to change jobs and negotiate for higher salaries—they earned more than men who stayed did. And we saw that as both men’s and women’s careers progress, the gender gap in level and pay gets even wider.

Our findings run counter to media coverage of the so-called phenomenon that “women don’t ask.” Instead the problem may be, as some other research has shown, that people routinely take a tougher stance against women in negotiations than they take against men—for example quoting higher starting prices when trying to sell women cars or making less generous offers when dividing a sum of money. Catalyst research has shown a number of ways that talent-management systems can also be vulnerable to unintentional gender biases and stereotypes.

Our latest findings should help us move past arguments that women themselves are to blame for the gender gap. “Too often the focus is on ‘women’s perceived issues’,” says Shahla Aly, a vice president at Microsoft. “This notion gives false comfort – that with time women will ‘be fixed’ and advance.”

If women are asking, but are still not advancing as quickly, maybe we need to frame things differently. Perhaps it’s not that women don’t ask—but that men don’t have to.

Are men being rewarded without even having to ask? Do women have to raise their hands and seek recognition to an even greater extent than men do, just to receive the same outcomes? Do women have to ask for the same thing multiple times before they get what they’re requesting? Do managers think women will accept a lower salary, while men will walk?

Smart companies are proactively mitigating negative effects of these potential biases, for example by being transparent about their internal process for career advancement, so all employees can gauge where they are and determine next steps for getting ahead.

Catalyst’s research on high potentials in the workplace reinforces one core finding: gender gap can’t be explained away by women’s preferences or actions. It’s time for companies to find, and fix, bias in the system.

Nancy Carter is senior vice president of research and Christine Silva is senior director of research, both at Catalyst.

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