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Her Pay Gap Begins Right After Graduation

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

For years, women have outnumbered men on college campuses. Overall, they get better grades than men. And yet, just months after they toss their mortarboards into the air at college graduation, men start to pull ahead of women in pay.

Though the pay gap between men and women is well documented, it is startling to discover that it begins so soon. According to a new study by the American Association of University Women, women already earn 20 percent less than men at the same level and in the same field one year after college graduation. Right at the beginning, before taking time off for childbirth or child-rearing, women find themselves behind.

Of course, it only gets worse. Today, women earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to census data, a figure that has remained steady for about a decade. The gap is deeply entrenched. The AAUW started studying the disparity in 1913, documenting different pay for men and women among federal government workers.

The latest study is unusual because it devotes attention to the first year out of school. "We are looking at a younger group of people who have many similarities," said Catherine Hill, director of research for the AAUW. "When they are just coming out of college, we expect to see fewer differences."

The gap, starting early, only widens as time goes on, according to the AAUW report "Behind the Pay Gap," released Monday. Ten years after graduation, women fall further behind, earning 69 percent of what men earn. A 12 percent gap appeared even when the AAUW Educational Foundation, which did the research, controlled for hours, occupation, parenthood and other factors known to directly affect earnings.

The remainder of the gap is unexplained by any other control factors. That may mean, Hill said, that discrimination is the root cause.

What to do?

One word: Negotiate.

While discrimination accounts for some of the discrepancy, said Linda Babcock, James M. Walton professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, women also suffer because they have not been taught to ask for more. Babcock, co-author of "Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide," argues that women don't negotiate enough, or many times, at all. She is not blaming women for creating their own wage gap, she said, but rather, society, for raising "little girls to accept the status quo."

Babcock encountered such an example while watching one of her daughter's favorite television shows, "Dragon Tales," an animated PBS series where a human brother and sister visit friends in Dragon Land. In one episode, the sister wants to make friends with a group of dragon scouts. Instead of just asking, Babcock said, the girl used indirect ways to fit in. She eventually succeeded by urging the scouts to join in teamwork.

For Babcock, the show reflected reality: Women are brought up to avoid asking for anything directly.

And so what can women do?

For one, realize that it's not your fault, Babcock said. "It's liberating that it's not some inherent piece of my personality that I do this. Those are the voices that have been in my head over the years."

In a widely cited study from 1979, first-, fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders were given a set task, then asked to pay themselves based on how well they thought they did. There was no difference between the sexes in the evaluations, but researchers found that in every grade, girls paid themselves 30 percent to 78 percent less than boys did.

Babcock said women should use a "cooperative negotiation style" to get what they want.

For example, don't go to a manager and say, "I have another job offer and unless you match it, I'll leave." That approach would be seen as threatening from a woman, even if it could be accepted from a man, Babcock said. So instead, reframe it: "I have this other offer, but I'd like to find a way to stay here. Can you match it so I can stay?"

Babcock also suggests practice. It may take a while for a woman to get over what she has been taught. So before negotiating, try some role-playing, she said. If you don't, you may ask for a raise and concede too fast or not negotiate at all. To prepare, sit with a colleague who knows the boss. Then go through different scenarios and ways to negotiate until you become comfortable with the process, she said. "We get most anxious when we don't know what to expect."

And once women know a little about what to expect, they may consider asking for what they want, as their male counterparts typically do.

Babcock conducted a study in 2002 that looked at starting salaries of students graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with master's degrees. The starting salaries of men were 7.6 percent higher, or almost $4,000 more, on average, than those of the women. It turned out, however, that only 7 percent of the female students had negotiated, but 57 percent of the men had asked for more money. The students who negotiated increased their starting salaries by 7.4 percent on average, or $4,053. That's almost exactly the difference between men's and women's average starting pay.

A lack of negotiating skills could be a part of the reason for the wage gap, said Hill of the AAUW report. Or it could go back to the person doing the listening. "Two workers who use the same kind of language could be perceived differently." In other words, a man and a woman might ask for the same thing in the same way, but get a different result.

In many cases, even women who finally ask for a raise may not get it because decision-makers aren't used to accepting negotiating behavior from women, Babcock said.

"Our society has a real double standard about what's acceptable for women to do and men to do," she said. "We're perfectly fine accepting negotiating behavior from men, but we react negatively when a woman does that. She knows she'll get a negative response or that we'll judge her, so she holds back."

At least two recent polls show that is likely happening. In another of Babcock's studies, she found 20 percent of women polled said they never negotiate at all. And in a recent study conducted by PINK magazine, a career publication for women, nearly half of 2,400 women surveyed didn't ask for a raise or promotion in the previous 12 months.

However, of those who did ask, 72 percent received one.

Knowing that, perhaps a few more women can gain some ground. And they just might set off enough change that today's young girls won't need to worry about a gap at all.

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