get that money

Actually, Women Do Ask for Money. They Just Don’t Get It.

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

The very first time I asked for a raise, I got it.

At the time, I was twenty-one years old and working an entry-level job in marketing when I realized I’d taken on far more responsibility than my $30,000 salary warranted. Having grown up on go-get-‘em-girls magazine articles and legal dramas fronted by high-powered career women (RIP The Practice), I just assumed that the next step for me was to stride into my boss’ office and ask for more money.

Perhaps it was youthful braggadocio, or the fact that my natural confidence hadn’t yet been dampened by corporate culture (studies have shown that it takes companies around two years, on average, to rob women of the self-assurance and ambition they bring to their first jobs), but nevertheless — one afternoon I called a meeting with my boss to ask for a $5,000 raise, and a promotion to go with it. After some back and forth, I got what I asked for.

In hindsight, I think my boss was a little blindsided by my forthrightness. And of course, not every subsequent salary negotiation has been as successful as that early experience — far from it, in fact. I went on to work in several other places where pay was often the least of my concerns, somewhere below “trying not to cry at my desk” and “looking for a new job.” But then, about three years ago, I became self-employed and suddenly found myself having to negotiate on a near-daily basis. Bit by bit, that early bravado came creeping back. These days, I almost never accept the first figure I’m offered — or the second, or even the third — if it’s not what I want. I ask for what I’m worth — sometimes more — and I walk away from jobs on a regular basis.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say it: I’m a good negotiator. Coupled with the fact that I’m currently writing a memoir about my relationship with money, it’s become something of a specialist subject for me, and I regularly field questions from other women about how to make their case when negotiating salaries or freelance rates.

And yet, when it comes to pay raises, the received wisdom is that women don’t ask. Or rather, that we don’t ask for them as often as men do. We are supposedly too timid, or too self-deprecating to march into boardrooms and demand what is rightfully ours, and as a result we end up being paid less. It’s a narrative promoted by even the most well-meaning spokespersons — well-paid empowerment gurus at slick feminist conferences, and glossy business manifestos perched on bestseller lists around the world. And I get it — the idea that women don’t ask for pay raises in the same way men do is seductively plausible. It fits in neatly with deeply ingrained stereotypes about so-called “feminine” personality traits.

It is also, quite simply, not true.

In a 2017 study titled Do Women Ask?, researchers were surprised to find that women actually do ask for raises as often as men — we’re just more likely to be turned down. Conducted by faculty at the Cass Business School, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Warwick and using data collected from over 4,600 Australian workers, the study was expected to confirm long-established theories around women’s reluctance to negotiate. Instead, the analysis showed that men’s and women’s propensity to negotiate is roughly the same.

These findings pose a significant challenge to the commonly accepted wisdom on this topic, as well as the findings of other well-known studies, specifically that of economics professor Linda Babcock. In 2003, Babcock co-authored an era-defining book called Women Don’t Ask (the general thrust of which is pretty obvious from its title). Her book and the studies underpinning it have been cited ever since as evidence of women’s reticence to ask for more in the workplace. (It’s worth noting that Babcock herself didn’t suggest that women’s supposed reluctance to negotiate stems from innate “feminine” qualities, as others have done. Rather, she believed it was a learned trait inculcated by various external social forces.)

Unlike other studies that have been carried out in this area, the Do Women Ask? researchers had more detailed data that revealed a crucial fact: Women are far more likely than men to work in jobs where salary negotiation isn’t necessarily possible, such as low-skilled hourly wage jobs or part-time roles. Previous studies that reached the “women don’t ask” conclusion often failed to account for certain types of jobs (and industries) being dominated by one gender, focusing instead on the overall number of men or women who’d reported salary negotiations, which — given the number of women who work jobs with “non-negotiable” salaries — skewed their findings.

The Do Women Ask? study, on the other hand, found that when comparing men and women who do similar jobs (and jobs where there are genuine opportunities for salary negotiation), women actually ask for raises at the same rates as men. Other recent studies reinforce those findings, including two separate studies by leading consultancy firm McKinsey, the most recent of which surveyed 64,000 North American workers to find that women actually negotiate for pay raises at a slightly higher rate of 31 percent to men’s 29 percent.

Now for the bad news: Both McKinsey’s research and the Do Women Ask? study found that while men and women ask for pay raises at broadly similar rates, women are more likely to be refused or suffer blowback for daring to broach the topic.

Depressing as these statistics are, in a way I also find them weirdly satisfying, given that they challenge the idea that women are at least partially to blame for wage inequality as a result of their actions (or lack thereof). They also reveal an uncomfortable truth about society’s propensity to assign blame to women for situations outside their control. By buying into the “women don’t ask” narrative, employers who should be doing more to rectify gender pay gaps in their own organizations get to ignore their role in fostering said gaps, and pass the buck back onto us.

In the U.K. (where I live), heated discussions about the gender pay gap have been rumbling on ever since the BBC revealed how much more its top-earning male presenters were paid than their female counterparts in 2017. Besides some predictable hand-wringing and the usual pledges to “do better,” the revelations were also met with scores of executives emerging from the woodwork, eager to express their dismay at how much more often their male subordinates asked for raises than the female ones. Sir Philip Hampton, a City grandee tasked by the British government with increasing the number of women in senior business roles, declared that “lots of men have trooped into my office saying they are underpaid, but no woman has ever done that,” suggesting that the BBC’s underpaid female journalists had simply sat back and “let it happen.” A convenient narrative, but alas, an incorrect one.

This also poses a dilemma for women who would prefer not to feel individually powerless against these obstacles — myself included. As someone who frequently gives advice about asking for raises (and has written a career guide for women that includes step-by-step instructions on the topic), I’ve felt conflicted about counseling women to modify their behavior when the actual problems are institutional, baked into their workplaces and the society in which we live. I hate the idea of putting the onus on women to overcome the gender pay gap, or somehow implying that they are the ones at fault.

Instead, I prefer to see it this way: It’s important to keep asking. Essential, even. The more we do it, the more opportunities we give employers to say yes, to notice pay discrepancies amongst their workers, and to grapple with their own biases. It will also help put this “women don’t ask” excuse to bed. Women are asking. It’s high time we were heard.

Actually, Women Do Ask for Money. They Just Don’t Get It.