May 4th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Whose Responsibility is Fixing the Wage Gap?

filed under Money Talks

iStock_000006916716XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

The wage gap between men and women is still running strong – 23 cents strong, according last year’s U.S. Census Bureau report. In fact, a new study conducted by Forbes leads women to believe that a little change in their actions could assist them in improving their chances at better pay. But it begs the question: is the wage gap our responsibility to fix?

According to the study, women can increase their pay by better managing their relationships with their bosses, peers, and subordinates. This conclusion was reached after surveying 315 white-collar professionals recently enrolled in the M.B.A. program at the Villanova School of Business and another undisclosed school. Information concerning the participants’ pay histories and job relationships was analyzed to look for correlations between change in pay and types of network relationships. Three specific types of networks were singled out to see which was the most influential in increasing compensation: subordinate networks (relationships with those working below an employee), peer networks, and networks with superiors.

The study was intended to offer insight to both men and women, as both sexes were also used for the findings, but little insight was actually given to women. Rather, common knowledge was simply reiterated. At The Glass Hammer we’ve discussed the importance of networking effectively at length. Forbes’ assertion that women’s corporate networks are significantly less effective than men’s wasn’t a major revelation. What was rather shocking, however, was the study’s claim that this fact alone suggests that “women have a bigger opportunity to increase their pay and close the wage gap by taking specific actions to understand and cultivate their relationships with supervisors, peers and subordinates.”

It’s important to never discount self-responsibility as well as the power that women have to be game changers. It is true that women need to learn to network more effectively; that overall, they must get better at negotiating their salary, but according to AAUW‘s top policy advisor Lisa Maatz, Forbes’ study never really gets to the heart of the matter, which is that discrimination follows women wherever they go.

Playing the Numbers Game

Take this scenario, for example: An employer has valued a job at between $85,000 and $90,000. When interviewing potential employees, the employer requires that they provide their salary history. A woman then comes in to be interviewed and when asking about the salary being offered for the position, the employer instead requests the female candidate’s salary history. Currently, she is making $65,000 a year and is offered $75,000 for the job. She accepts, grateful for the $10,000 raise, unaware of the fact that she will be receiving less than the position was originally valued at; thus saving the company between $10,000 and $15,000. This situation is played out every day in corporate America. What makes it even worse is that oftentimes women are unaware that it’s happening and walk away thinking they’ve been given a raise.

“When the Forbes study implies that it’s a woman’s responsibility to fix the wage gap, it’s not quite as egregious as blaming a victim of domestic violence for the violence, but it’s similar,” Maatz said. “Forbes’ argument is problematic from the very get-go because it’s essentially asking the person without power in the situation to change what’s happening to them. In other words, you can’t ask women who are powerless to end the discrimination they’re experiencing to fix the wage gap because the problem doesn’t start with them.”

Maatz and the organization she works for are avid supporters of women negotiating their salaries and finding out how much they should be paid based on their location and occupation, but she’s quick to point out that sometimes doing so backfires. “Gender stereotypes abound and it’s not unusual for a woman attempting to negotiate her salary to be seen as ‘too aggressive’ and then not get offered the job. Also, if you ask your male co-workers how much they’re making for performing similar work, you run the risk of being retaliated against by employers.”

Keep Working toward Equal Pay

Though Forbes’ study hit the nail on the head when it identified how important effective networking can be for women, it did a disservice to women by suggesting that networking alone is enough to fix the wage gap. The Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963 and women have yet to experience the equal pay promised by its passing. Yes, it’s important for us to take responsibility and do whatever in our power to change our situations, but it’s also very clear that stronger legislation is necessary not only to give women a fighting chance at equal pay, but also to ensure that a woman getting paid less than a job was originally valued at is not only unacceptable, but illegal.

“The wage gap puts women in a very difficult situation: If they do nothing about their predicament, they never know their options or whether or not they could have received more money. If they do try to fix the problem, they’re retaliated against,” Maatz said. “This is why the Paycheck Fairness Act is so important. You should be able to ask if the guy next to you is making more money than you without the fear of being let go or treated differently for asking. This promise of non-retaliation in the Act really is key.”

4 comments

  1. Annie @ PhD in Parenting

    Like so many other social issues (nutrition and breastfeeding are two in my sphere of interest), I think it is a shared responsibility.

    Women need to demand better salaries and not accept lower wages than men.

    Employers need to offer women salaries that are equivalent to their male counterparts.

    Unions need to support female members and assist them to get fair wages.

    Governments may need to regulate in some instances (e.g. requiring employment equity plans for employers).

  2. Shayna

    I hate the part of the interview process where I’m asked about my salary — even if I were to bump it up a bit I have no idea what my male counterparts are making so I could still short myself – and the risk of being called an aggressive bitch is unfortunately, quite high – and can lose the job opportunity altogether. Losing the retaliaition by eployers for discussing pay is a necessary step.

  3. ilga

    Doesn’t it make sense for employers to hire more women than men if women do the same work for less money? Our salaries may not be bigger, but we are taking over more jobs.

  4. Lynn Harris

    Good article Tina. I’m getting a little tired of the “let’s fix the women” approach when so often it’s more about the systemic forces in play.