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posted: 8/25/2013 6:43 AM

Subtleties — not skill — cost women in pay talks

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The Washington Post

A new Bloomberg report found that out of the top executives at each of the companies in the S&P 500 index, only 8 percent were women, and these women at the top ranks of corporate America earned 18 percent less than men. It sounds like another story about businesses' failure to promote and pay women fairly.

But here's the headline Bloomberg came up with: "Best-Paid Women in S&P 500 Settle for Less Remuneration." The first voice introduced in the story is Dawn Lepore, former chief executive at, saying, "I was always focused on negotiating for my team but never as good at negotiating for myself."

It's true that women often don't bargain hard enough for higher pay, as shown by a number of studies and a terrific book called "Women Don't Ask," by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The word is out, and solutions (hatched mostly by women) are already in the works, like coaching young women on how to negotiate before they enter the workforce.

But consider that women at the very top of the S&P 500 probably are among the best negotiators in the world, given their day jobs. Even if some might feel shy about asking for more money, the idea that their unwillingness to negotiate can account for an 18 percent pay gap flies in the face of study after study showing that gender inequality isn't the result of women being scared to stand up for themselves. It's subtle biases that inform how we all -- both men and women -- evaluate one another.

Take one famous study about letters of recommendation for faculty at a large U.S. medical school in the mid-1990s. The authors found that female candidates were more likely to be complimented for "grindstone adjectives": words such as "hardworking," "conscientious," "dependable," "meticulous," "diligent," "dedicated," "careful." They also were often praised for being "team players." Men were more often described with "standout adjectives," such as "outstanding" or "superb."

It doesn't take long to see this play out in everyday media coverage and commentary. Just cast your eyes on the debate over President Barack Obama's pick for the next Federal Reserve chairman. Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen has been described as someone who "does her homework." She writes "carefully crafted statements." And Larry Summers? We haven't heard much about his work ethic. It's his "brilliance" that we're reminded of.

There are other examples of how we unconsciously view men and women differently. Other research has shown that when employers evaluate workers for promotions, women tend to be considered on the basis of their performance, while men often are promoted for their potential.

"In many small ways, it's as if men have little plus signs next to their names and women have little minus signs," says Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College who wrote "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women."

And that's the problem with pinning the pay gap on women not asking for enough. Even if they negotiated perfectly every time, the success of any negotiation depends on a set of parameters. If a woman is subtly docked because the first word that comes to mind to describe her is "collaborative" rather than "brilliant," all the negotiation in the world isn't going to get her paid fairly.

The real solution is targeting what Valian likes to call "cognitive errors": mistakes that lead us to attach traits to men and women without seeing what we're doing.

"Once you sort of learn about how [these biases] work, you tend to be more thoughtful about how you make your own decisions," says Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology at Stanford University. "We're not being biased because we're bad people. We're often biased because we're in a rush."

So it's all well and good to tell women to negotiate. But a problem this pervasive isn't going to be solved by women driving a harder bargain. It's going to require people across the negotiating table to demand more of themselves, too, examining and testing their own assumptions.

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