Why don’t women professionals ask for what they really deserve?

Many researchers and scholars have long argued about gender parity and discrimination at workplaces. However, the least discussed topic remains constant-why do women workers still hesitate in asking for a raise or income hike when they unequivocally deserve it. There can be many reasons for this.

Why women professionals don’t ask what they deserve

It was frustrating for Kritika that she had been getting a lower salary as a team leader, given the amount of experience under her belt. Being a team player and excellent at her job was not paying her well enough. She began doubting herself and wondered about what was missing in her approach to this problem. After much introspection she realized that it was her fault—she was simply not asking for what she deserved.

It was frustrating for her, to say the least, but as it turns out… there are many Kritikas out there.

American journalist and author Joanne Lipman shared her experience through her book—’This is what she said: What men need to know’ of Chapter 6-, ‘She deserves a raise but won’t ask for it.’ Lipman writes, “The biggest surprise for me when I became a manager was that how many men asked for a raise, a promotion or a bigger office. It came as a shock because I didn’t ask for those things myself. Neither did the women I supervised.”

“Recently, after coming into a supervisory position, I brought this topic up in conversation with my female-identifying co-workers. Chloe Rosenlicht said “I’ve actually never asked for a raise. I just don’t think it would be worth it.” Then my other colleague Anna Hennigh talks about how she first asked for a raise only last year at the age of 31, working at her previous job. Anna said, “They responded with ‘Well do this, this and this and then we will consider a raise.’ Yet, I watched the people around me get raises. People who did much less than me,” she further writes.

This is what most women professionals are experiencing.

Backing this observation, an extensive survey conducted by Harappa Education (an online learning institution for personal growth) on what women in leadership need, revealed that a staggering 90 per cent of female respondents stated that they hesitate to ask for a raise at work.

Other researcher’s observations such as Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor and economist Linda Babcock’s are worth citing on this topic. Her research shows that men are four times more likely than women to ask for a salary raise.

Her study was about the starting salary of CMU fresh graduates. Male MBAs were getting 7.6 per cent, or almost $4,000, higher on average than female MBAs of the same program. That’s because women simply accepted the employer’s initial salary offer; in fact, only 7 per cent had attempted to negotiate. But 57 per cent of their male counterparts had asked for more.

LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021 adds some more insights. The study states that at least 1 in 3 women feel that they get paid lower than men, a sentiment that is significantly stronger amongst women in Singapore (51 per cent), Australia (44 per cent), Malaysia (40 per cent), and Japan (40 per cent). In India too, 37 per cent of women say that there is a disparity in terms of equal pay, and they earn less than their male counterparts. Only 21 per cent of men shared this sentiment.

All these studies indicate that till date, even with all the discussions and actions around gender pay parity, women continue to earn less.

We all know that this disparity in pay is one issue which has been talked and argued about for a long while; but these scholars and researchers have not really talked much about the problem that lies at the heart of this phenomenon—Why do women not ask for what they deserve?

Inside article1-Why women professionals don’t ask what they deserve

Psychology plays a part in this

“My larger perspective on this issue is that there are two categories of women employees – the ones that ask for a raise and the ones that don’t. The latter is higher than the former, a fact that has been highlighted by many studies on the subject,” says Ashish Kolvalker, HR Head at Amagi. He believes psychological factors are responsible for this.

It’s not a secret—women do think differently from men.

Women’s psychological and demographic factors impact or influence their decisions even in their professional lives. For example, among the employed women in India, many are employed in the informal labour market (education, healthcare), where there is little or no possibility for salary negotiation. Women often choose to work in these sectors as they provide steady working hours which gives them the flexibility to juggle their personal and professional lives.

On this Kolvalker says, “The psychological factors that hold women back are many. The negative sentiment shown towards women who have dared to ask for opportunities or advancement is one of the key deterrents. But among the psychological factors, the predominant one is usually guilt. Women who juggle their careers and household responsibilities often feel undeserving of promotions or salary increments as they believe that their male counterparts put in more working hours than they do. This is, of course, entirely untrue. In my experience as an HR Business Partner and a career coach, I have often encountered women who are ridden with such feelings of guilt and who hold themselves back from asking for what is rightfully owed to them.”

Substantiating this thought are the results of a Harappa survey that brought to light the fact that 52 per cent of Indian women professionals with less than 20 years of work experience feel inadequate or underqualified for their positions, despite their multiple years of experience.

This figure also displayed a gradual decrease for women with more than 20 years of corporate experience (37 per cent). Surprisingly, a mere 21 per cent of women felt continuously supported by their male peers at their workplaces.

Another psychological factor is the internalised assumption that hard work pays. Many times, women assume that if they work hard, their efforts will be noticed and appreciated, automatically leading to career and financial progression. However, that is not always the case.

Yogita Tulsiani, MD & Co-founder, iXceed Solutions, a global tech recruiter provider also adds her comments, “Several factors play a part in this. First, in a country like India, we are still surrounded by a male -dominated society. Besides, women lack the confidence to raise their voices against gender imparity and unequal gender pay norms. Sometimes, female workers never ask for a raise as they are bound to think that they don’t deserve it, or it is out of their reach. It makes them very reluctant. It is already in their head that even if they ask for it, they will not get it. This is also a very major reason for their hesitation.”

Also, vulnerable female employees are paranoid about their job security. If they are the only earning member in the family, the fear of losing the job holds them back from asking for a raise. Thus, fear of rejection can be enough of a reason to avoid raising that question, Tulsiani asserts.

Another behavioural factor is that women employees often want to skip negotiating formalities involving work management. They find that playing hardball can jeopardize the offer. Lee E. Miller, co-author of ‘A Woman’s Guide to Successful Negotiating’ writes on the matter, saying that women “simply accept the first offer”. Due to their innate nature, they don’t like the back and forth involved in salary negotiations and tend to cave in.

Some of them wait for the right time. She accepts the position, tries to prove her worth, and then asks for a raise.

An HR professional with 30+ years of experience, anonymously said on social media, “I recall going through a study concluding that men make higher salaries than women in similar jobs. The reason is… men demand more money. As per the study, women are easier to please. They don’t go to their boss and demand a raise. They ask politely and then let it go. Also, women are less likely to put in uncompensated overtime as men do, and this gives men more leverage to demand a raise.”

Men think women are aggressive

Various experiments by Carnegie, Harvard and Australian scholars and several others, studying gender effects on negotiation bring forth the evidence that our society has pre-conceived notions about how women should negotiate.

A book on the subject by Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook, ‘Lean In’ illustrates a real case scenario of an aspiring philosophy professor—W. When she was offered a tenure-track job with the Nazareth College philosophy department, she tried to negotiate for better, as she thought. While, negotiating she asked for a slightly higher salary than offered, paid maternity leave, a pre-tenure sabbatical, a cap on the number of classes, etc.

The college promptly withdrew the offer.

The leaked conversation caused ripples while dividing opinions on the matter. Some suggested it was arrogant of W while some deemed the college’s actions as unethical. However, this debate did lead to one conclusion-that there are implicit gender perceptions and when women stand up for themselves in negotiations, it may not have the intended effect.

In India, when asked if they felt the same by Harappa Education in a survey, around 85 per cent respondents said yes. Most women professionals felt that at least once in their career, they have been perceived as ‘bossy’ or ‘dominating’ when they were just being assertive.

“The women who ask for a raise or a promotion are often perceived as bossy, demanding or career-minded. These perceptions often act as deterrents to their professional advancement,” opines Kolvalker.

Having said that, consistent outcomes of many studies state that there is a bias at workplaces in India as well. 1 in 5 i.e., 22 per cent women professionals in India said that their companies exhibit a favourable bias towards men at work when compared to the regional average of 16 per cent, as per LinkedIn.

And when it comes to a woman negotiating, it is viewed as problematic, aggressive or bossy.

At the same time, Tulsiani disagrees with this perception, as workplaces are changing. She says, “I totally disagree with this statement. Rather than being bossy or dominant I believe female employees are much more empowered and upfront according to their job role. Of course, this has been a big issue for a long time. Working women need to take a stand for themselves and work without caring about any such judgement.”

Not asking widens the wage gap

India may be a progressive country but in terms of gender gap and wage parity it is consistently sliding backwards. The country did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap 2021 rankings where it slipped 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries.

Not only this, but the number of women professionals is decreasing too and so is their earned income.

As per WEF, the women’s labour force participation rate, fell from 24.8 per cent to 22.3 per cent. While the share of women in professional and technical roles declined further to 29.2 per cent. The share of women in senior and managerial positions also remains low: only 14.6 per cent of these positions are held by women and there are only 8.9 per cent firms with female top managers.

Further, the estimated earned income of women in India is only one-fifth of men’s, which puts the country among the bottom 10 globally on this indicator, the report said.

According to the experts, the reasons for this can be psychological or sociological but it all comes down to one fact—women’s reluctance to advocate for themselves.

“The more women hold back, the more the gap widens,” says Kolvalker. Given that so many factors hold women back from asking for salary increments, the gender gap is quite naturally wide.

However, the gender pay gap is determined by many other factors—fewer women joining the workforce as compared to men, women dropping out of the workforce due to familial obligations such as maternity or caring for the elderly, discrimination during the hiring stage or at the time of increments / promotions, women choosing professions that typically attract lower wages (such as teaching, social work, nursing), among others, he says.

And, as if this was not enough, the pandemic has only lengthened and made more treacherous the journey towards gender pay parity.

When a global survey by IPSOS in 2020 asked women professionals about equal pay, 71 percent of Indian respondents thought it likely that women will be paid the same as men for the same work that year. Only 26 percent of respondents felt that this was unlikely.

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Highlighting the current scenario, in India, more than 4 in 5 working women (85 per cent) claim to have missed out on a raise, promotion, or work offer because of their gender, compared to the regional average of 60 per cent.

This has led many women professionals to conclude that if they will not be paid evenly, then why should they even bother with asking for a raise.

Not asking or not getting?

Dr Riddhi Rathi Shet, MD at Orthosquare and Flexalign says, “In today’s highly competitive and high-pressure industry, a much-needed scenario of women in leadership roles has come to the forefront owing to several challenges, be they cultural, societal or the structural barriers in our country. In my personal opinion, working women professionals no longer hesitate to ask for a pay hike; the main reason being that they are very aware of their potential and are confident of their work.”

Dr. Shet, continues, “Women have an internal need to receive what they deserve. They themselves set very high standards for themselves, so they ask for a raise only when they feel that they deserve it. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with asking for a raise as that reflects the hard work that you do.”

There is no harm in asking, but the harsh truth is that when women do negotiate at their workplaces, they just don’t receive what they demand, just like candidate ‘W’.

In a study by Cass Business School, University of Wisconsin, and University of Warwick, when it culled data from 4,600 employees, revealed that 75 per cent of men asked for a raise, while only 66 per cent of women employees asked for one. But when this was measured by taking into account their qualifications, work hours, employer nature etc, there was no difference between men and women. Researchers found that men were 25 per cent more likely to receive the pay hike that they asked for.

The findings led the researchers to accept this fact—discrimination against women at workplaces still exists.

“This is one of the very serious issues for women professionals in India,” says Tulsiani.

“The Indian workplaces need to understand the prejudices and differentiated behaviour towards women professionals and need to incorporate their unique perspectives within curricula designed to help empower women leaders and leaders-in-making. Women already have a lower expectation from the system. This is not because we are women, but because of the already set norms,” she avers.

And only awareness can mitigate this situation.

Kolvalker as an HR matters expert suggests that both employees and organisations can bring about change gradually. Not to mention, this will require considerable time and effort.

He suggests that in order to mitigate this issue, sponsors can play an important role in a woman’s career. “Sponsors can play an important role in women’s professional journeys. These are typically leaders who are willing to groom candidates and help them chart a career path for themselves in the company. Women can seek out mentors or role models within their companies and request them to act as a sponsor or as a coach to them,” he explains.

According to him, sponsors can make an employee visible and successful in a firm. “Women professionals can take the help of coaches or counsellors who will provide them with appropriate encouragement,” he further states.

But the responsibility should not lie with the employees alone. It is always a two-way process.

To bring about change, organisations should be fair-minded, and an open, honest work culture can help their employees fully succeed in their efforts at becoming well-rounded professionals.

“Managers should be made to undergo training to overcome their unconscious biases. An informed leadership team that decidedly focuses on inclusivity could also go a long way in resolving these challenges. Leaders of an organisation need to take tangible steps to ensure that diverse communities within the organisation are being given fair treatment,” Kolvalker says.

Studies, surveys and books say that the solution can be simple—women should just ask!! But they don’t.

It’s because till date, most of the time, women undervalue themselves. We can call it a quirk of biology or an ingrained cultural norm but it’s an uncomfortable fact all the same…and we are still living in a world where men and women are judged differently.

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