Every few months, it seems like I come across another article informing readers that the reason we have a wage gap is because women can’t negotiate. These articles inform me that men have no compunction about pushing for what they’re worth and they usually get it, while women languish in the low-salaried trenches, unable to advance because they can’t bring themselves to ask for more pay, to negotiate better benefits, to exchange salary and wage information with other women so they have a basis for comparison and can develop a more assertive and effective case for getting paid more.
What many of these articles seem to elide is the role played by social conditioning here. They tell me that women can’t/don’t negotiate, but they don’t tell me why and they suggest that women who want to get paid more just need to try a little harder to get what they want. Be more assertive, be more aggressive, push for what you’re worth, don’t take no for an answer. The formula varies depending on the author and usually includes at least one anecdote about how the author brought a shy little mouse out of her shell and turned her into a roaring tiger.
Women don’t negotiate. These trend pieces make it sound like a personal failing; it’s the fault of the women, you see, for not negotiating. Women are responsible for the pay gap because if they would just negotiate, they’d be making as much as their male peers in the same positions. It’s on them to get what they want and what they need. This is a common framing when it comes to social inequality, something I have noted in the past, that it’s always the fault of the person on the short end of the stick, a personal problem and not a social, cultural, or structural one.
Surely, women being unwilling or unable to negotiate when it comes to pay scales has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that women are trained not to engage in that sort of activity and taught not to ask for more. We don’t start, from a very young age, indoctrinating girls with the idea that they can’t ask for things and they need to accept what they can get, that they are expected to accommodate others at all times, not to be accommodated. We certainly don’t do anything to undermine their confidence and sense of self worth. And we obviously don’t penalise teen girls and young women for being go-getters who are assertive about what they want. There’s absolutely no social conditioning behind the fact that women are reluctant to negotiate, and don’t know how to go about it.
Negotiation, barter, any sort of situation where people are discussing money and how much of it they want to spend, this requires practice and training. You aren’t born knowing how to do it, you have to learn it, and someone has to teach you. Boys and young men get that teaching, the training they need to be confident in negotiations, to set a specific goal and get it.
Young women and girls? Not so much. Indeed, any attempt at exploring negotiation and making requests tends to get shut down pretty quickly because it’s unladylike and threatening. Which means that when said women go out into the workforce, get ready to buy houses, prepare to negotiate with the mechanic, they don’t know what to do. They are at sea. And, thanks to the social conditioning of men and boys, a man often steps in to ‘rescue’ the poor distressed clueless girl, which means that she never has an opportunity to try for herself and is indeed discouraged from doing so.
Don’t talk about money, it’s not polite. Women are trained not to discuss how much things cost, not to talk about how much money they make or how many assets they have in savings. It’s not nice so it doesn’t get discussed which means that many women are uncomfortable in frank discussions about money and assets, let alone discussions where they are being asked to determine how much they are worth, how much they should be paid, what kind of investment they represent for a potential employer. Is it any wonder women feel uncomfortable in salary negotiations? They’ve been taught to be.
I see this with freelancers all the time; there’s a lack of knowledge about how much work should be worth so women don’t have a baseline to use, and they’re shy about asking for what they think their work is worth, and usually, what they think is actually nowhere near the truth, if they knew the going rate for the type of pieces they are talking about. It’s a sobering reminder of the intrusive ways that social conditioning can weave through our lives; it’s hard to make it as a freelancer when you don’t know how much to charge and people treat freelancing women like hobbyists just waiting to find a husband or entertaining themselves until they have kids. Get treated like a hobbyist, start thinking like one, and that makes it hard to ask for any pay at all for your work, let alone something appropriate.
People want to talk about how women don’t negotiate? Ok, fine. Let’s start with why and talk about how to fix that, rather than starting on the premise that women just don’t negotiate and leaving it at that.