Why Is It So Hard for Women to Ask for a Raise?

Afraid to be assertive when it comes to your salary? You're not alone. (Photo: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock).

During the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, had an interesting conversation with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Everything was going along smoothly until the topic of women and negotiating raises came up.

“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” said Nadella. “That might be one of the initial 'super powers,' that quite frankly, women (who) don’t ask for a raise have. It’s good karma. It will come back.”

Cue record-scratch sound effect. What?! Women earn on average 77 cents to a man's dollar. Where are the super powers in that? Nadella was quickly taken to task by the media and issued a speedy apology, in which he deferred to Klawe’s dissenting reaction. “Maria’s advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.”

"You should just ask." But therein lies the problem. Women have a hard time just asking. Even Klawe herself admitted a failure in negotiating her pay before accepting the position of dean of engineering at Princeton and again with her current position. Why is this? Most women know they’re worth it, so why don’t they ask to be paid what they deserve?

It’s a question that has sparked the interest of social scientists and economists, including Emily Amanatullah, an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas.

Amanatullah has been intrigued by the topic since she was in graduate school. Most women she talked to had a hard time negotiating for themselves, but they found it easier to do so on behalf of someone else. With this in mind, she designed an experiment in which men and women negotiated a starting salary for themselves and then did the same for a colleague. When the women negotiated for themselves, they asked for an average of $7,000 less than the men; but when they advocated on behalf of someone else, they requested just as much money as the men.

Amanatullah concluded that when women negotiate for themselves, they are hampered by the concern that asking for money will harm their reputation. Other research backs that up: male and female managers are less likely to want to work with women who negotiate during a job interview, reports Planet Money.

For men in general, negotiating doesn’t offer the same conflict. Research shows men are four times more likely than women to ask for a salary raise. Linda Babcock, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, tells All Things Considered that this has a snowball effect. A small increase in pay means bigger annual raises and a higher salary carried over to subsequent employers.

"I tell my graduate students that by not negotiating their job at the beginning of their career, they're leaving anywhere between $1 million and $1.5 million on the table in lost earnings over their lifetime," Babcock says.

What happens with women is that they are, essentially, waiting for Nadella’s karma to kick in, Babcock says.

"They wait to be offered a salary increase," she says. "They wait to be offered a promotion. They wait to be assigned the task or team or job that they want. And those things typically don't happen very often."

And is it any wonder? Babcock did some research in which she showed videos of a man and a woman asking for a raise, using an identical script. Viewers liked the man and agreed that he should get a raise. The woman’s negotiating got a general thumbs-down from both male and female viewers.

"People found that to be way too aggressive," Babcock says. "She was successful in getting the money, but people did not like her. They thought she was too demanding. And this can have real consequences for a woman's career."

Babcock and Harvard researcher Hannah Riley Bowles tested various ways in which a woman could ask for a raise and keep her image intact. The trick, Babcock discovered, was to conform to a feminine stereotype: appear friendly, warm and selfless.

"I gotta say, that was very depressing!" Babcock says.

So is this what it comes down to? Women are more concerned with coming across favorably than asking for what they deserve?

Monica Guzman of The Seattle Times recounts a negotiation that left her wanting “to vanish” after asking for half the raise she had hoped (and practiced) asking for.

“When the moment came, I didn’t want to be paid what I was worth. I wanted the out-of-town executive — whom I would never see again — to like me.”