When I went rock climbing for the first time, I looked up at the 20-foot wall and laughed. “Yeah, that’s not happening,” I said to a friend. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have zero upper-body strength.” It was something I’d always known to be true: I am small, my body is weak. But an hour later, at the top, I discovered I was strong in ways I hadn’t realized. Money sort of works the same way. Often enough, the only things standing in the way of financial progress are our own limiting beliefs about money. We think of money as evil or impossible or superficial, and those negative associations can have a negative impact on our earning potential.
In her book, Secrets of Six-Figure Women, author Barbara Stanny refers to people who think this way as underearners. She discovered that women who did not live up to their earning potential shared a handful of common traits that the high earners didn’t possess. When I first read the book, it rang painfully true; it felt like Stanny was calling me out from beyond the page. Seeing these mental blocks laid bare helped me challenge them; in the hopes that seeing them might help you, too, here are a few of those traits.
A high tolerance for low pay
Whereas “high earners make darn sure they’re well compensated for their time and work,” Stanny writes, “it rarely dawns on (or appeals to) an underearner to set her sights on a higher salary.”
Maybe you’re convinced your employer just doesn’t have the budget to pay you more, even though you’ve never asked. Maybe you’re convinced you still have to “pay your dues” and work for peanuts until you meet some arbitrary milestone that says you’ve suffered long enough. Whatever the justification, underearners are so tolerant of earning less that they don’t even consider money as part of the equation.
While these traits can appear in anyone, women may be especially susceptible to them because they are “socialized to be in support roles,” says Alice Stuhlmacher, a psychologist and researcher at DePaul University. This isn’t always a bad trait, though. “Employees with a tendency towards humility, teamwork, and relationships can make the workplace more productive and less stressful.”
However, in her research, Stuhlmacher has found that when women do speak up at work, the outcomes are worse for them than for men. Employers perceive assertiveness in women more negatively, which only reinforces women’s tolerance for low pay. It is what’s expected of us. “These differences contribute to underearning as well as inequity in other areas since there are many issues to negotiate at work beyond pay,” Stuhlmacher says.
A tendency to underestimate your worth
Stanny writes that underearners, and women in particular, tend to underestimate their professional value. Indeed, a 2012 study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology showed that women consistently paid themselves less than men for doing the same task. Psychologists refer to it as the “depressed entitlement effect,” which is a tendency for women and other groups to devalue themselves based on their societal role. In other words, the wage gap becomes self-fulfilling. Women know they’re paid less than men, and they subconsciously or otherwise accept this dynamic in valuing their own work.
Again, while this trait can apply to anyone who underestimates their professional value, women are especially susceptible to it. Stuhlmacher says that while women can work to change this mind-set and speak up, the most significant steps must also come from the employers. “Transparency about opportunities removes obstacles for women’s pay,” she says. “It normalizes asking for resources and reduces backlash for assertive behavior.”
A willingness to work for free
“Underearners regularly give away their time, knowledge, and skills for nothing,” Stanny writes. “They’ll work at no charge without thinking twice. Most of the time, it’s so ingrained they aren’t even conscious they’re doing it.” Since underearners devalue their work, they’re often willing to give it away for free, believing it’s not worth anything, anyway.
By contrast, high earners expect to be compensated for not only their work, but also their extra time and effort, whether it’s speaking at an event or putting in overtime. All of this said, Stanny points out a difference between working for free and working “pro bono.” The difference lies in your power and control over the project. For example, let’s say you’re an established web designer. There’s a difference between accepting a non-paying gig for “exposure” and offering to help out a friend by designing her website. With the former, you’re doing the free work on someone else’s terms. With the latter, it’s less of an obligation and more of a choice to donate your time and effort.
A fear of negotiation
Underearners are terrified of negotiating and avoid it altogether. Stanny writes, “underearners are reluctant to ask for more. Underearners hold back simply because they’re too scared. ‘What if I raise my prices, and they laugh in my face,’ said Annie, a bookbinder.”
Again, there may be a reason women are prone to this fear: They face a social penalty when they negotiate. “People tend to associate negotiation with masculine characteristics like confidence, dominance, and assertiveness,” Stuhlmacher says. “But when women act in these assertive ways, they might be disliked and face backlash because this behavior does not fit societal expectations for women.”
If you’ve have a bad experience with speaking up, it could keep you from ever wanting to negotiate again. Some experts even discourage women from speaking up about their salary, because the social penalty is too high. If you’re viewed as unlikable, that can work against you. According to Stanny, however, negotiating is a necessary part of the process if you want to earn more. “It’s hard for most women in all income brackets to demand more. High earners might not like it (and they rarely do), but they do it,” Stanny writes. “That’s how these six-figure women got where they are. They do what they are afraid to do.”
Interestingly, research suggests that women are better at advocating for others than they are for themselves. When negotiating for someone else, we ask for more than we would negotiating our own job offers. So if you’re afraid to speak up, it might help to think about it in terms of supporting your community — you’re asking for more to raise the bar for other women, other workers in your industry, or even your direct colleagues. As Stuhlmacher points out, the responsibility also falls on employers to do away with a system that encourages women to take on these traits in the first place. That said, we might as well get a head start.