A recent study of 2500 job seekers indicated that men are far more likely to negotiate salary and benefits in job situations where it has no been stated that the salary is negotiable.
I am not surprised. Running non-profit organizations with limited resources, I always ended up with primarily female staffs because women would accept a lower offer than men with similar qualifications. This meant that the women got the jobs for salaries their male competition turned down. This, in turn, may have effected their salaries for a long time to come, in subsequent jobs. Is this bias?
Clearly not. The negotiations between an employer and potential employee are ethical and the conditions are known. A skilled negotiator (I am personally incompetent at negotiating my own fee; in ProEthics, my partner handles all of that) will get a better deal; a poor or reluctant negotiator will get terms more advantageous to the employer. It is not bias if the most aggressive and effective negotiators happen to be men.
Nonetheless, on at least two occasions this dichotomy led to ethical dilemmas. In one of them, I had two identical jobs to fill, and had been given a range by my superiors. I was to offer X, but I was authorized to go as high as X+. My duty to the organization was to get the best talent for the least resources. My top candidates were a man and a woman, with equivalent credentials. I offered the woman X. She accepted happily: it was more than she expected.
I then offered the male candidate X. He refused. He argued for more. His counter offer was more than X, but less than X+, my limit. I agreed. He was happy.
Now, however, I had two identical positions, with similar employees in every respect but salary. The man was getting more, not because I was biased, but because he was a better negotiator than his female colleague. Still, it seemed wrong to me, and dangerous: if the woman found out that she was being paid less for the same work, she would feel like she was being discriminated against. I know I would have.
So I went to my boss, and proposed that we raise her salary to the same level. He was incredulous, arguing:
- The male wasn’t negotiating for the two of them, just himself. Why should she benefit because he cut a better deal based on his superior business savvy?
- This was business, and negotiation is a business skill. He has it, she doesn’t. If she finds out about the discrepancy, tell her exactly why she had a lower salary.
- I would not be making such a request if the two employees were the same gender. (Maybe not then, but in another parallel situation later I did.)
- Our duty was to get as much done as possible with our limited resources. Rewarding an employee because another employee succeeded where she failed is an irresponsible misuse of resources.
I then went to the general counsel, and said that I thought the disparate salaries risked a lawsuit. “You did nothing wrong,” he said. “Just document it. Your boss is right.” It sure didn’t feel like he was right. If the situation remained as it was, I knew that:
1. I would have two employees doing the same work for different compensation, despite the same amount of experience, ability and time on the job.
2. I would be tempted, at review time, to find a justification to give the woman a better evaluation and a bigger raise even if she didn’t deserve it. I might even do so without consciously being aware that I was rigging the process, because I would have an existing bias against the respective salaries as they were.
3. I would feel as if my withholding the salary disparity from the female employee was an ongoing deception.
As things developed, the woman turned out to be an office star, and my boss was immediately impressed with her. A bit later I requested again that their salaries be equalized, and this time, he agreed. When I told her that I was giving her a raise, I also told her that she had cheated herself, in comparison to her colleague, by not negotiating effectively. She was very grateful for the advice, and said she would remember it in the future. Many years after she had left my organization to do other things, we had a chance meeting at a conference. She told me that she had taken the experience of her job with me and used it to spur her to improve her negotiation skills. She said that she was sure it had made a difference of “tens of thousands” of dollars in her employment contracts over the years.
This aspect of male-female salary disparity shows the dangers of attributing every disadvantage to outside malevolence. While identifying unjust biases in the workplace, women should not assume that their own shortcomings may not be part of the problem as well. Could a large part of the salary discrepancies between men and women be addressed by women learning to negotiate as zealously and effectively as their male counterparts? My guess is that it could. Women taking responsibility for remedying financial disparities by improving their own bargaining skills is both more productive and more ethical than placing all the burden on employers to compensate for a society-imposed behavioral gender difference. No, I don’t think employers are ethically obligated to negotiate with themselves when job-seekers, male or female, are poor negotiators and agree to worse terms than better haggling skills might have obtained. Nonetheless, the disparity in negotiation skills between the genders still causes an appearance of bias, and when that occurs, businesses can’t ignore it. That does not relieve women in the workplace of the duty to recognize that improving their own skills will be a boon to all concerned.
Graphic: Biddy Bytes