The Gender Salary Gap & Taking Risks

August 3, 2007

Recently, Scott Adams (the Dilbert Blog) posed a question to his readers:

Imagine yourself floating in a foggy environment. You can see only one thing in front of you. It’s an open doorway to somewhere.

Without knowing anything else, including where the doorway leads, or what your needs and desires are at the moment, or even why you are in this foggy environment at all, give your first reaction to this question:

1. Do you choose to pass through the doorway?

Remember your answer and don’t change it. I’m going to ask you to leave it in a comment, along with the answer to this question:

2. What is your gender?

The goal was to make a point about the salary differences between men and women, but instead of simply saying that men are more aggressive and naturally competitive, Scott theorizes that men and women have a different sense of what constitutes an invitation.  Men tend to view anything short of a “do not enter” sign as an invite, while women need more explicit permission.  Therefore, when it comes to salary negotiation, men ask for more money simply because they can, while women need some kind of clue that it’s okay to negotiate – without that, they just accept the first offer.

Or perhaps it’s because women don’t want to be viewed as “not nice”.  This article in the Washington Post examines the work of Linda C. Babcock, a Carnegie Mellon professor who has performed a series of studies on the salary gap and the likelihood of men asking for a raise/higher salary versus a women.  What they found was that, while men are still more likely to request a bigger paycheck, women who do step up and ask for a bigger paycheck are more likely to penalized – they’re looked at as “not as nice”.  By the men, not by the women.

Assuming that the women who asked for more in the study were polite, professional, and were capable of enumerating the reasons why they deserved a higher salary, why would they get penalized more than the men?  Is it because women are generally viewed as the nurturing ones, who sacrifice for the good of the whole (accepting less money so that the company prospers more), or what?  It comes down to a woman having to weigh their desires for more money versus the social risk of being seen negatively.

Going back to the invitation thing – do women want an explicit invitation to open the door because they are more wary of what could be behind it then men?  If they know that there is a greater chance of a negative result if they did open it, of course they would want someone to say “hey, it’s okay, come on in.”  According to the study in the Washington Post, men would be more apt to open the door that Scott Adams mentioned because there is a much greater chance of there being something good behind it.  Perhaps it’s more of a societal problem than an actual behavioral difference between genders.

However, maybe things are slowly changing.  This article in the New York Times documents the shift in wages between young men and women who live in major cities.  Young women are actually earning more than men in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and my current hometown, Chicago.  Various reasons were given, including that women are earning degrees in much greater numbers than men and gravitating towards large urban areas, and also they marry later, they’re less likely to have kids, etc.  Or maybe things are finally just evening up as women become increasingly independent – and asking for what they want?

Of course, time will tell if there will be an actual change in wage equality, instead of just a shift amongst the younger age group.  After all, men in their thirties and beyond still earn more than women on average.  It will be interesting to follow this pattern into the future to see if the shift lasts longer than just the early twenties, or reverts back to the traditional pattens as women get married and have children (and therefore leave the workforce or go part-time).  It’s also important to note that this study is only referring to major cities, where the young people tend to be more career focused than their suburban or country counterparts.

It would be interesting if the people who replied to Scott Adams’s door question had been asked to give their age as well, so we could see if there was a shift in the way younger people answered, especially the women.

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