About a month ago, I urged women to do our part to help close the gender wage gap by learning to negotiate for more money, noting that it's a well-established fact that women don't ask for as much as men. I made the point that that's not the only, or even the primary, reason for the wage gap—but why should we help keep our income down? Commenters made some other important points, including the fact that women do get punished for being assertive, far more than men do. That's also been well established, which only means that women have to work harder to find the appropriate strategies for us. In the wages-and-salary game, you can't win if you don't play.
Nevertheless, I raised my eyebrows when, at The Washington Post, Nancy Carter and Christine Silva of Catalyst wrote:
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....
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.
I have no doubt that "women don't get as much in return," and that "talent-management systems can also be vulnerable to unintentional gender biases and stereotypes." Just as your brain is racist, your brain is also unintentionally sexist. Our cultural training about these things can only be overcome by active and conscious effort.
But is it really true that women do ask, as much as men? Even though Catalyst is generally considered the premier research and consulting firm on women in corporate life, I wondered about that contention.
So I went to the underlying study, called "The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All The Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?" There I found the caveats. It states:
We studied 3,345 high potential [worker]s in this report, each of whom stayed on a “traditional” career path following graduation from a full-time MBA program. They were working:
• Consistently full-time in companies and firms;
• Without periods of self-employment or part-time work;
• Without education-, travel-, or family- or personal-related breaks in employment.
Aha! I am not sure we could draw workforce-wide conclusions about women and men based on a sample of a) MBA graduates, b) people who were so unusually talented that they were identified as "high potential" workers, and c) those rare individuals so committed to their careers that they'll forgo family and personal life to get ahead. These are outliers from the get-go.
Yet even within that elite sample, Catalyst did find—contrary to what Carter and Silva write in the Post—that the men were more likely than the women to negotiate that first salary, from which all other raises and advances are calculated:
There were differences, though, in men and women negotiating, depending on how many post-MBA jobs they had had. ... Men were significantly more likely than women to have had countered their first post-MBA offer by asking for a higher salary ( 50% of men, 31% of women).
I understand that Catalyst is trying to make the essential point that the wage gap isn't women's fault. The study emphasizes that—as social scientists have shown elsewhere—men are promoted and paid for their potential, but women aren't promoted or rewarded until after they've proven themselves. And it exposes other structural barriers to women's equal advancement. I applaud the absolutely important point that while women have crashed many barriers over the past 50 years, the career system is still unintentionally rigged in favor of men. But let's get the facts right while making that point.
Listen, I'm glad Catalyst is focused on making sure those high-flying women get their just rewards. Now, could the rest of us focus on creating a job system in this country that actually enables most workers to take sick time, family leave, weekends at least partly off? Please—wasn't feminism about transforming the career system in this country so that it supported family life, helping women and men get treated fairly even when we decide to be full human beings? (Toward that end, check out Joan Williams's work at the Center for WorkLife Law.)