Equal Pay Day: Why don't women just ask for more?

Apr 12 2011 Published by under Miscellany

Today is Equal Pay Day. It's not a celebration like Mother's Day or Independence Day or Labor Day, at least for half the US population.  Instead April 12th symbolizes how far into 2011 women must work to earn what men earned in 2010 - it's not an exact date because the 2010 earnings data has not yet been released.

If you take a look at the US labor statistics for 2009 the difference between the median full-time weekly earnings of women and men are striking: women earned $687 per week while men earned $873 per week. There's a disparity no matter what level of education the employee attained: women with only a high school diploma earned 75.7% of what men earned ($542 vs $716), while earnings of women with a doctoral degree was only 70.9% that of their male counterparts  ($1243 vs $1754). (fcs has the numbers in pretty graph form)

The reasons for wage disparity are complicated. Part of it has to do with many traditionally male-dominated professions paying better than female-dominated professions.  Part of it has to do with some women taking time off from their careers to have children or "choosing" to spend their time doing housework or childcare rather than spending long hours in the lab or office. But that's not the whole story.

Just last week an article in Inside Higher Ed reported a study that showed that all things being equal (other than gender), women faculty members still get paid less than their male colleagues. The bottom line, according to the article:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.

That difference is smaller than the overall wage gap, but still significant, especially considered over the course of a career.

It's not just a problem in academia. WhizBANG! has posted about a study that showed similar results for starting salaries of newly trained physicians.

And as an AAUW report  - "Behind the Pay Gap" (pdf) - points out, there's even a pay gap in professions dominated by women.  It's just smaller.  Women in education earn 95% as much as men, woo hoo!  Their conclusion:

Women and men who received bachelor’s degrees in 1999–2000 attended similar kinds of colleges. Women earned slightly higher grades, on average, and in other respects appear to be men’s equals in the classroom. Most women entered full-time employment following graduation. One year later, women earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn—about the same as the pay gap for the workforce as a whole. Gender segregation in undergraduate majorsand the subsequent segregation of the work force partly explain the pay gap. Yet the pay gap within fields of study and occupations suggests that the answer is not so simple. Indeed, after accounting for all factors known to affect wages, about one-quarter of the gap remains unexplained and may be attributed to discrimination.

So why the difference?

Sexism and discrimination? Almost certainly part of the problem, even if people aren't conscious of their biases.

Women don't negotiate better salaries for themselves? Also true.

There's not a lot that women can do about sexist employers, especially if their biases aren't overtly expressed.  But salary negotiations are under our control, right?  As the helpful mainsplainers who usually pop into these discussions usually point out: if women want better pay, why don't they just ask for more?

It's not necessarily that simple.

For one thing, a  number of studies have shown that women expect lower pay then men. A recently published study by Melissa Williams of the Stanford School of Business and her colleagues suggest that this may be due at least in part to unconscious biases. They had participants in the study estimate the salaries of men or women in the same profession. Women were consistently estimated to be paid less. Their conclusion:

First, we suggest that the salary estimation effect is not primarily driven by an awareness of the societal phenomenon of the gender gap in wages. Second,we suggest that the operative factor driving the salary estimation effect is a generalized stereotype linking men (more than women) with wealth. Social role theory would hold that this stereotype emerged from repeated observations of men occupying breadwinning roles, holding the highest-earning occupations, and managing household income at a greater frequency than women. Third, we argue that this male wealth stereotype can operate outside of awareness, guiding salary estimates and thus increasing the likelihood that the stereotype can perpetuate real gender salary differences even among the well intentioned.

But even when women do figure out what their work should be worth, the negotiation itself can be a stumbling block.

It's not just that women often aren't trained to assertively negotiate on their own behalf. It's that women who do so  may actually be penalized, particularly if the other negotiator is male.  As one recent study observed:

Men were significantly more inclined to work with nicer and less demanding women who accepted their compensation offers without comment than they were with those who attempted to negotiate for higher compensation, even though they perceived women who spoke up to be just as competent as women who demurred.

So that's the double bind for women:  if you don't ask for a higher salary, you likely won't receive one, but if you do, you may not be hired or promoted.

I doubt there is a simple solution.

But I hope discussion of the gender pay gap isn't pushed aside by Congress as simply a "women's issue".  It's always a bit mind-boggling that issues affecting half the population are treated as unimportant or unreasonable. And I hope the family values folks keep in mind that that the pay gap doesn't just affect the half of the population who are women, but any household where a woman's income contributes to household income. The husband is the sole breadwinner in only 18% of married couple families in the U.S. The pay gap is a family issue as well as a fairness issue.

Tell your Senators you support the Paycheck Fairness Act.  It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.


Dey J.G. & Hill C. "Behind the Pay Gap" AAUW Educational Foundation (2007)

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Women in the Labor Force: A Databook (2010 Edition)

Williams, M. J., Paluck, E. L., & Spencer-Rodgers, J. "The masculinity of money: Nonconscious stereotypes predict gender differences in estimated salaries." Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 107-120. (2010)

Bowles H.R., Babcock L. & Lai L. "Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103:84-103 (2007)

Kolb D.M., "Too Bad for the Women or Does  It Have to Be? Gender and Negotiation Research over the Past Twenty-Five Years" Negotiation Journal (2009)

Related Scientopia Posts:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day (gerty-z @ Balanced Instability)
Equal Pay Day! (proflikesubstance @ The Spandrel Shop)
$16,819 for a Penis (Whiz BANG!)
Penis Parity Day (grrlscientist @ This Scientific Life)
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day (FCS @ The Difference Engine)
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL (Dr. Becca @ Fumbling Towards Tenure)
Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union
(Janet Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science)

Image borrowed from feminist blogs in english.

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Women’s Equality and Neurosexism

Aug 28 2010 Published by under Brain & Behavior

"... for nothing terrifies the average man so much as a touch of science which he does not understand. And nothing gives a shallow-minded individual so much importance as to when he quotes a little false biology."
~ Woman Suffrage (1907) by Arnold Harris Mathew

This past week marked the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. The right to vote was only achieved after decades of work by supporters of women's suffrage. The "false biology" Mathew refers to in the quote above is the belief that the anatomy of women's brains made them intellectually inferior to men, a claim that was used to argue that women were mentally unsuited to vote. As Mathew points out¹, the latest scientific evidence did not find any significant gender difference in brain size or overall intelligence.

But even when women and men were considered to have similar levels of intelligence, it was argued that gender differences in brain anatomy showed that men and women have different types of intelligence:

For example, prominent phrenologist2 Jessie Allen Fowler proposed:

Those parts [of the brain] which are most extensively developed in man are the seat of the intellectual attributes, creative and volitional, as opposed to the emotional and sensatory, which have their seat in the posterior and lower region; and those parts of the brain which are most extensively developed in woman are the seat of the emotional, domestic and affectionate attributes.

Thus man, as a result of this brain development of a differentiated character, shows a mind endowed with judgment, creative power and philosophic reasoning ability; and woman, on the other hand, shows an insight into the domestic relations, home life, and the social well being of mankind.

This does not mean that man has no affection and woman has no reasoning powers, but that the above named attributes predominate as a prerogative in each sex.

~ Brain Roofs and Porticos (1913), pp. 69-70

Fowler's conclusions about the gendered brain - that women are good at understanding emotions and men are good at problem solving - aren't too different from those published nearly a century later.  And while I think it's easy to dismiss Fowler's analysis of gender differences as  stereotypes dressed up as science3, current popular science books and articles

often cite recent scientific studies that presumably are more experimentally solid than phrenological skull measurements.

It turns out that even those books that appear to be scientific on the surface may distort the science to emphasize gender differences and downplay the similarities between men and women.

As Mark Liberman at Language Log has pointed out in his analysis of the misrepresentations of science in Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain, the issue is not that there aren't differences between men and women, but that those differences are often misleadingly exaggerated:

There certainly are psychological and neurological differences between men and women, sometimes big ones. But even when they aren't promoting their ideas on the basis of "facts" that are apparently false, authors like Sax and Brizendine use a set of rhetorical tricks that tend to make sex differences seem bigger and more consequential than they really are. You can do it too, if you want -- just choose phenomena that emphasize differences, leaving out the ones where the sexes are more similar; pick studies that find stereotypic differences, leaving out the ones whose results disagree; and in all cases, talk and write as if (even relatively small) differences in group averages were essential characteristics of every member of each group.

(read Liberman's whole post if you haven't already)

Australian psychologist Cordelia Fine has looked more deeply at the issue in her recently published book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference.  While I haven't read it yet, at least part of it appears to expand on Fine's 2008 paper in the journal Neuroethics - "Will Working Mothers' Brains Explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism" (pdf).

In that article, she suggests why so many people find the claims that there are significant gender differences in brain function appealing:

What, exactly, is the draw of gender stereotypes dressed up as neuroscience? For men, perpetuation of the idea that they lack women’s hard-wired empathizing skills is a small price to pay for license to lay claim to more valued and potentially profitable psychological advantages. According to another popular book about gender difference, The Essential Difference [1], “[t]he female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is  predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” (p.1). As Levy [16] notes, this translates to the idea that “on average, women’s intelligence is best employed in putting people at their ease, while the men get on with understanding the world and building and repairing the things we need in it.” (pp. 319–320). Levy adds, “[t]his is no basis for equality. It is not an accident that there is no Nobel Prize for making people feel included.” (p. 323).

Fine suggests that women may use the information to rationalize the status-quo. For more about Delusions of Gender, see the interview with Fine in USA Today's Science Fair blog, the review post at Language Log, and the article about Fine's book in the Guardian.

So if there are indeed differences in the average male and female brain, and many men and women find those differences appealing, why is highlighting those differences a problem?

Even thought we may not consciously acknowledge gender stereotypes, they can unconsciously affect the way we perceive both ourselves and others. For example, women business leaders who conform to female stereotypes are often perceived as less competent, while those who do not conform are considered "too tough" or "too angry". Similarly a recent study by physicist Amy Bug showed that a physics lecture made by male actors received significantly higher performance ratings from male students than the identical lecture given by female actors.  Such biases are difficult to counter, since most people don't consciously realize they have them (you can try the Implicit Association Test, to assess your own unconscious biases).

It's has also been shown that just the knowledge of a negative stereotype about the group in which one belongs, can have a detrimental effect on performance.  For an examples of the effects of "stereotype threat", see Christina Agapakis's post explaining how cultural stereotypes about math ability appear to affect test scores.

Even if there are significant differences "on average" between male and female brains, such averages tell us nothing about a particular individual's abilities, aptitudes or interests. I'm not much of a stereotypical "girly" girl - don't care for chatting on the phone, have had the same hair style for a decade and enjoy science. On the other hand I tend to be soft spoken, and like watching Project Runway and cooking shows, and I think of myself as sentimental and sympathetic. Most women and men I know also have a mix of stereotypical "masculine" and "feminine" preferences and behaviors. Pop culture books that misrepresent neuroscience studies to suggest that only stereotypical behavior is "normal" or "natural" do us all a disservice.

I'm looking forward to voting in November.

Top photo: Image from the Library of Congress's Bain Collection on Flickr

Middle images: Illustrations from Jessie Allen Fowler's Brain Roofs and Porticos

Bottom image: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Image courtesy of Dr. Paul Thompson, University of California, Los Angeles.

1. Mathew wrote Woman Suffrage in support of women's suffrage in the UK, but similar arguments about women lacking the intellect to vote were made in the US.
2. From Wikipedia: "Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules . . . Phrenologists believed that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a person's propensities, and the importance of the given mental faculty. It was believed that the cranial bone conformed in order to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas of the brain in different individuals, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain."
3. Fowler's book also has an chapter on how skull shape differences between races demonstrate different "temperaments".  It's not that surprising that she divides people "superior" and  "inferior races", given the racist attitudes of the early 20th century. But what I find a bit surprising is that the  "races" are broken down into much smaller national groups with apparently unique brain characteristics. For example the "Scotchman has a predominance of the bony and muscular structures, with more of the Motive than the Vital Temperament, hence he is characterized for action and thought ... is slow yet strong, steady and firm. ". That is, of course, quite different from the English, who are "the strongest type of the Caucasian", or the Welshman or Irishman.  The book's generalizations of the personality types of different Europeans and Asians and Africans is like a catalog of early 20th century stereotypes "supported" by the evidence of their shape of their skulls.  It's unlikely her analysis of gender differences in brain structure is any more scientific.

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