Negotiating the Gender Wage Gap for Fun and Profit

There’s a gender wage gap. We all know about it. We just haven’t been able to come up with a very good solution, until now. The WAGE Project believes that equal pay can come if you just ask. Of course there’s a lot of underlying systemic reasons as to why women aren’t being paid equally, and it will take systemic change  to fix that, but what the WAGE project is proposing is still actually pretty ingenius. The WAGE Project wants to educate women about what they should be averaging at their job and then give women the right tools and information to negotiate a raise.

In a workshop given by the WAGE project, one of the real eye openers is when they pass out little pink dollars to illustrate how much women are earning compared to men:

Line them up next to a real dollar, and the difference is stark: 77 cents for white women; 69 cents for black women. The final dollar — so small that it can fit in a coin purse, represents 57 cents, for Latina women. On a campus that is two-thirds women, many have heard these numbers before. Yet holding them up next to one another is sobering.

This is enough to make anyone angry or sad or depressed. It’s also crucial in finally understanding that equal pay will come with a lot of hard work that’s still left to be done.

What exactly affects the gender wage gap? According to a report called “Graduating to a Pay Gap,” from the American Association of University Women, women working full time in their first year out of college earned only 82 percent of what their male peers did, on average. Some of this can be accounted for by things like the employee’s specific occupation and hours at work, but one-third of the gap remained unexplained, and therefore can be linked to systemic issues with compensation based on gender.

The WAGE Project believes that this one-third can be addressed at least in part by increased negotiation. In your first year out of college, you’re likely to jump at the first offer you get. I did! And I accepted way less than what I should have been making because everyone told me that freelance writing is not a money-making field. It wasn’t until my thesis supervisor asked what they were paying me and told me that I was being underpaid. In fact, a friend who worked for the company I was freelancing for informed me that the company was going to pay me X amount but they offered me Z amount. After I continued working for this company on a different project, I took a leap of faith in myself and asked for a raise and got it.

Asking for a raise is scary. There’s a fear of rejection. There’s a fear of the economy. There’s a fear of appearing conceited or cocky. There is a thin line between cockiness and self-confidence, and presenting that self-confidence with grace and courage is not an easy feat. Requesting a certain number isn’t the best way to present your case. The WAGE Project has a calculator on their website for you to look up what field you work in and what that field is averaging pay-wise. According to a workshop from the WAGE Project,

Women learn never to name a salary figure first, and to provide a range, not a number, if they’re pressed about it. They are coached not to offer up a figure from their last job, unless explicitly asked. The use of terms like “initial offer” — it’s not final! — is pounded into them. And, perhaps most important, they learn never, ever, to say yes to an offer immediately.

As women, we’re sometimes taught that being assertive isn’t an attractive feature. Ambition and drive in men are often viewed negatively in women. No one wants to seem conceited or cocky. In a study from Economist and Professor Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon, men and women requested raises using identical scripts. People were more likely to say the men deserved the raise more than the women, because the women were labelled as aggressive. In fact, the most positive things the women could do were smile while they asked or appear welcoming and friendly. So, basically, women were rewarded only if they conformed to feminine stereotypes.

Is the wage gap only about negotiating higher pay? No, obviously not. There are so many contributing factors in the gender wage gap, including outright sexism. The WAGE Project empowers women to take action and feel confident in their own skills, and to address the gap head-on (if not necessarily the reasons for it) by pushing employers to pay them what they’re worth. That sounds like a good starting point to me.

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Hansen is the former DIY & Food Editor of and likes to spend most days making and cooking and writing. She teaches creative writing at Colorado State University and is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in her free time.

Hansen has written 189 articles for us.


  1. The “women don’t know how to negotiate” argument is an interesting one. I think it’s true, though not so universally true as the authors of books like ‘Women Don’t Ask’ would have us believe. Recently I attended a speech where the speaker argued that plenty of women are asking and trying to negotiate, but they are perceived as pushy and aggressive when they do (consistent with the Babcock study that you mention). To put it bluntly, there are some women who will benefit from the message “hey, you can negotiate”. And there are others like me, who sadly need to learn the lesson “hey, you can negotiate, but the patriarchy is going to squash you if you don’t use the magic word when you do it”.

    Gosh there’s just so much sexism in the workplace today and it’s just so hard to know what to do with it. In my last position I was sort of thrown into the deep end with difficult projects that went way above my pay level. But in my performance meeting I was told that my real strength was my “lovely presence” and “interpersonal skills” and basically all my core professional work was overlooked. I think my boss was quite surprised to find that my “lovely presence” became significantly less lovely and started demanding an independent review of my work (thanks for the raise, guys!).

  2. Re: “there’s a lot of underlying systemic reasons as to why women aren’t being paid equally, and it will take systemic change to fix that”

    Here are what I consider the main components of the “systemic change” that it will take:

    There will be equal pay when:

    Wives are as willing as husbands to give their spouse the option of working full time, part time, or staying home full time. Currently wives give husbands these three options: work full time, work full time, work full time with overtime.

    Too many women still practice hypergamy: marrying “up.” Successful women seek even more successful men.

    Too many women still regard a husband as an “employer” who pays them to stay at home if they choose that option.

    Too many single women still ask as soon as possible (so as not to waste their time): What do you do? In other words, even as a woman may complain that men check out her chest size, she checks out his check size. The message to men: I’d better have a good-paying job or she won’t go for me. Men’s jobs are men’s makeup with which to attract women.

    As a result, we get things like this:

    “Many of the best and brightest women in the United States get an MBA so they can earn high wages, but they end up marrying the best and brightest men, who also earn high wages — which affords these women the luxury of not having to work so much.” -Superfreakonomics, pub. 2009, p. 46, paperback edition

    Which produces things like this:

    “In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time, up from 7% of men and 29% of women from Cejka’s 2005 survey.”

    Which produces — in the very same work — the gender wage gaps that so enrage politicized feminists.

    Please be sitting down when you read this:
    “The Doctrinaire Institute for Women’s Policy Research”

    • I’m not sure if anyone told you this was a queer website? Not to overgeneralize, but most of us don’t plan on marrying dudes. That aside, I think that much of what you said is nominally true — even today, a fair amount of straight women consider their husbands to be monetary providers — but it is less than fair of you to blame women entirely for the wage gap without accounting for sexism and discrimination in the workplace, which (trust me) exist. Also, it might help to take into account the societal pressures and norms that inculcate women with the idea that their sole worth is as a homemaker in the first place. So instead of demonizing women and victimizing men, maybe you could realize that gender inequality is a complex, systemic issue that is not just a result of lazy women sucking money out of their husbands?

      • Also, thanks for reading the first two sentences of the article and then deciding it was time for you to get on your soapbox in the comments.

    • The other reason women may ask men “What do you do?” is so that they get to know them better. Obviously that wouldn’t make much sense to you as in your mind women are just money sucking parasites that live off men and their money.

      You seem to be blaming women for the social expectations that tell us that we need to be successful in business AND take responsibility for child rearing. These standards are the responsibility of all of us. It isn’t that women won’t “let” their husbands work part time, it’s that husbands never offer and women feel pressured and obligated to take on all family responsibilities. WE need to have conversations about who does what in and outside of the home, women and men.

      The wage gap isn’t a problem because “too many women” do this and “too many women” do that. It’s a problem because as a society WE don’t view the sexes equally. ALL of us need to work at equality between the sexes. Please don’t put the burden of change solely upon the shoulders of women.

    • To paraphrase: the gender pay gap is women’s fault!

      You obviously have limited understanding of wage gap statistics. They typically measure full time earnings only, so your claim that women working part-time produces the wage gap doesn’t make sense.

      In other news, when I meet a lady, I ask what she does for a living. Have I been making ladies uncomfortable by checking out their cheque?? Oh noes.

    • 1) “Currently wives give husbands these three options: work full time, work full time, work full time with overtime.”
      Wives don’t “give” husbands these options. The social structure does. There is an imbalance of paid and unpaid work between the sexes so that women work more hours but get paid less. Having the husband earn the lost money is only a way of compensation.

      2) “Too many women still practice hypergamy: marrying “up.” Successful women seek even more successful men.
      In other words, even as a woman may complain that men check out her chest size, she checks out his check size.”
      This reminds me of survival of the fittest. Again, social structure. If society takes away from equality—women skills are devaluated, predominately female jobs are lower paying, and women generally receive less pay for equal work—“marrying up” is probably a mechanism of survival in order to get what is owed to those marginalized by society.
      I hope you’re aware that even with women receiving a majority of the higher ed diplomas, the wage gap is still 23%. Female graduates still make $8000 less than male graduates, a year after graduation.

      3) “In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time”
      Stats and numbers in themselves don’t mean anything. You have to ask WHY. Why do they work less than full time? Again because of the extra unpaid AND paid work that females especially mothers have to commit to. With the motherhood penalty, and no paid leave policies in place in America, it is no wonder that females are subtly forced by the social structure to work less than full time.
      That IS NOT however a reason or an explanation for the pay gap.
      This is all because of discrimination. It still exists today. Many take pride in blaming females for the persisting inequality. In reality, too many women are denied equal opportunity.

  3. Just researched this topic in depth.
    My conclusion – Personally I dont think targeting women employees will help substantially close the gap. We need to target the employers –that’s where discrimination really takes place and fuels the gap.

    • I totally agree, but I think there’s something to be said about giving women the tools they need to feel empowered and less helpless. Yeah, it’s not going to solve the problem of discrimination, but letting women know that it’s okay to be confident and assertive in the workplace is more than most women ever hear during the course of their careers.

  4. I feel l like if I ever own a company, my female employees would end up getting paid more than the men. Because I’m a wee bit sexist like that.

    • Not sure how this came across my inbox so ‘late’ but glad to hear the arguments for and against negotiating pay. I’m all for standing in one’s power and asking for what their skills are worth in the marketplace. Unfortunately, I have found that female business owners are just as likely to pay women less as are their male counterparts because they are all too caught up in the numbers, bottom line, mentality. And bottom line does count! It really requires employers to be vigilant, do pay equity audits, and include gender in the measurement tools! We advocates have been on that soapbox for decades. Silent ears are the results. But this is a new decade, another generation of business owners, with a keen sense of justice.

  5. In regards to the argument about men being victimized; it’s important to consider the double-shift that many working moms face. They may work fewer hours than their husbands but when they go home they don’t get to just sit on the couch with a beer, they have to basically work another full day maintaining the household. After starting a family, men are still seen first as individuals and then as husbands/fathers whereas women are defined primarily as wives/mothers and their right to be an individual is sacrificed in order to live up to the selfless feminine ideal. Men can leave the home, work, and value their careers without fear of social stigmatization that comes with being a working mother. This is unfair to both men and women, so equality between the genders would only help society as a whole. Women aren’t looking to “oppress the oppressor”, just to earn equal status as human beings with the right to pursue whichever path they choose.

  6. Indeed, we could conclude that the economy is growing slowly, and hiring is picking up. Yet, the pay gap between men and women is still very much at play, says a new study. That disparity is in evidence immediately after college, and follows women throughout their professional lives.

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