Jennifer L. Porter, left, and Nada Eleryan go over coursework during a salary negotiating workshop. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When it comes to the gender pay gap, researchers say a root cause is simple: Women don’t ask. They are less likely to make a counter offer when they are hired and less likely to ask for raises over time.

That’s why on a recent weekday more than 50 women came to an after-hours session at an office building near the Navy Yard to learn how to do it. The workshop, led by the American Association of University Women, is designed to replace the anxiety that accompanies conversations about pay with proven strategies for negotiating effectively.

The District, through a partnership with the association, plans to train 15,000 women in five years through the free workshops.

“We have a smaller gap than most places in the country, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who stopped by and encouraged the women to spread what they learned to their female friends and co-workers.

Giving women more opportunities and earning power at work is good for the District, because it can make it a more attractive place to live long term, she said.

Participants role-play during a salary negotiating workshop. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“Many like you come to D.C. for opportunities,” Bowser said. “It’s our challenge to keep you here.”

The D.C. workshop was one of about two dozen that took place across the country on Equal Pay Day, which marks the day on which women on average match the salary men earned the previous year. The “Work Smart” seminars are part of an ongoing national effort to close the pay gap.

A growing number of cities are also passing laws that encourage salary parity.

The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would ban employers from requiring job candidates to provide salary information as a basis for future pay, inspired by a similar law passed in Massachusetts last summer. Instead, employers would be required to publish salary ranges based on the skills and qualifications associated with the role.

Women working full time receive 80 percent of what men earn, according to national census data from 2015. In the District, the figure is 86 percent, or $62,191 annually, compared with $72,230 for men.

The workshops — along with sister workshops offered on college campuses called Start Smart — were originally launched by the nonprofit WAGE project. Then the curriculum was purchased by the AAUW and has begun to expand through partnerships with cities across the country.

Boston was the first to sign on. Mayor Martin J. Walsh (D) committed to funding training for 85,000 women — half of the city’s female workforce — over five years. Since then, seven more cities, including the District, have followed suit.

City leaders, angling to compete in a global economy, are looking at equal pay as an important component of hiring and retaining the best talent, said Victoria A. Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. This kind of training is a part of the solution, she said.

The two-hour workshop session begins with a detailed picture of the wage gap.

A disparity is evident the first year after college and grows over the course of a career, with far-reaching implications: Women take longer to pay off student loans; they retire with less money in the bank; and they are more likely to live below the poverty line.

The gap is larger for African American women, who earn 63 percent of what white men are paid, and Hispanic women, who earn 54 percent.

Career choice affects pay, with many women pursuing less lucrative professions, as do decisions to leave the workforce to care for children. But a recent study of the workforce found, after controlling for these and other variables, that there is still an unexplained gap of 8 percent or more that researchers attribute to discrimination or gender bias.

The workshop guides the women through a range of activities, including writing a value statement or elevator pitch about their skills, and offers advice for finding the market value of their target job, by checking websites such as and

The facilitators advised the group to decide the lowest salary they are willing to accept, based on their budget, and to ask for a range that goes up from there.

And they highlighted potential pitfalls: When a potential employer asks for past salary information or a target salary, deflect as long as possible, they said.

“Do a tap-dancing act like you have never tap danced before,” said Claudia Richards, branch relations senior manager at the association who co-led the workshop.

Women often carry depressed salaries into their next jobs, and they tend to lowball when asked to name their number first, she said.

The facilitators at the D.C. workshop offered suggestions for things that are negotiable that can sweeten a contract, such as a transportation allowance, professional development, or the week off between Christmas and New Year’s.

And they provided sample language to use throughout the negotiation.

The words and tone are important. Research shows that it can backfire when women ask for more money if they are seen as overly direct and assertive. It helps if they use positive language and point to objective sources of salary information, Budson said.

The attendees role-played and left with homework to practice — in front of the mirror or with a live person staring back at them.

Rashida Moore, 36, said the workshop felt “empowering.”

She is finishing a graduate program in arts leadership this spring and has a practicum at the National Museum of African American History. She started looking for jobs a month ago.

With a new degree, she is looking to make a major jump in her career, in responsibility and pay. “I fear how it is going to be received,” she said, particularly since human resources departments keep requesting her salary history.

“The negotiation should be a dialogue. It hasn’t felt like a dialogue,” she said. “This helps me rethink some assumptions so I’m not already defeated before it starts.”