I have spent a good part of the last decade attending workshops to help women combat a ubiquitous problem: pay inequality. Just as self-defence courses rose to popularity in the early 80s, the solution to battling pay inequality it was hoped was through these workshops – in teaching women to negotiate and understand their self-worth.

But in doing so we made a fatal error. We shifted the burden of wage inequality to the victims of discrimination and blamed the wage gap on their choices.

When girls negotiate, they are seen as less likeable and more manipulative and therefore less likely to be given a raise by their employers

My recent research has shown me that the pay gap starts long before these career choices and negotiations are made: teenage girls as young as 14 and 15 are consistently paid less than their male counterparts. I used a nationally representative, large scale dataset, National Longitudinal Study of Youth, to capture the broad trends and also interviewed 35 young women who worked as babysitters and 25 women who worked in the retail and service sectors in the US.

I tested out what happens when young women and girls do negotiate over their pay. In my study of young babysitters, I found negotiations were not an easy fix to wage inequality: when girls negotiate, they are seen as less likeable and more manipulative and therefore less likely to be given a raise by their employers. Furthermore, talking about money is seen in direct opposition to caring and especially in jobs that require care work, so, for instance, asking for more money makes young women seem like they do not care and are therefore not team players.

There are ways to tackle this which I list below but most importantly, in my opinion, is the need to shift the burden away from individual women, i.e. the victims of discrimination. We need to treat pay inequality as a systematic failure of institutions, not individual failures of negotiation.



Information black-hole

One of the major challenges in pay negotiation is a lack of information. Many young women I spoke to said they did not know the going-rate for particular jobs. In an age of information, the lack of transparency around wage information is shocking. We need to make pay information public and that information readily accessible to women. The lack of information was especially prevalent in freelance jobs such as babysitting. While some websites like Glassdoor publish self-reported wages, there are not many of these types of websites and they do not always cover freelance workers. These sites are also relying on self-reported data which cannot provide a comprehensive picture of an industry. Going into a job interview, pay information or information about the going rate for that role is the most important aspect. It does not matter how much you negotiate if you go into the discussion with a starting salary that is substantially lower than the going rate you are already on the back foot.

Learning to talk about money

It’s not just a dearth of information that’s a barrier, girls are also socialised into not talking about money. Many young women I spoke to said they didn’t compare notes with their friends about their various babysitting rates. We could create an open, transparent culture and teach our children to talk about money. Even though there were very few male babysitters, what was surprising about the group that I spoke to was they all knew the going rate for the work and had shared pay information with each other, but not with their female babysitter friends. Does this mean that networks are useful for men, but not for women? These young women’s networks were less likely to provide this type of pay information. In fact, young women’s networks often stopped them from asking for more money. One young babysitter told me she was babysitting for “(her) godmother’s daughter’s child” so she could not ask for more money.

Gender neutral job descriptions

In my view the pay gap is not simply about the pay: it is also about comparable job descriptions. Another solution lies in making sure that we have the same job descriptions for men and women. When you ask parents to describe the role they’re hiring for babysitting is babysitting, but depending on the gender of the babysitter, the job description was markedly different. Female babysitters were asked to do light housework, run errands, do chores, cook for the family and help the children with homework or projects. The male babysitters on the other hand, were rarely asked to run extra errands. Just like pay information, it is important to make job descriptions clear and public. It’s not only the job description but also the length of the shift that can differ based on the gender of the babysitter. Male babysitters are there for their shift, and their shift starts and ends promptly. Female babysitters on the other hand were working for more unpaid time: half an hour after the shift parents would talk to them about anything from a head lice outbreak in class to the new class project. The difference in unpaid time is important because this implies women’s time is not as important as men’s time. This is about respecting men’s boundaries and their time and not women’s.

Even though there were very few male babysitters, what was surprising about the group that I spoke to was they all knew the going rate for the work and had shared pay information with each other

Interview process

There were also further differences in the way the employers approached candidates during job interviews. Employers were more likely to ask male babysitters how much they expected to earn but told young women what the rate was. It might seem like a small difference, but employers were more open to men asking for more money and not female candidates. Similarly, when negotiating with male and female babysitters, employers- namely the parents- were more likely to share with the male candidates all the other benefits or perks available such as travel expenses, but were less likely to share this with the female babysitters.

This is all not to say that women should not negotiate over how much they earn, but we need to analyse more closely what happens when women do negotiate. Instead of providing workshops to individual workers, perhaps it’s time more employers and people in hiring positions were made aware of their own attitudes?


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