When Does The Pay Gap Start?


At Financial Nutrition, we have the unique opportunity to work with girls and women of different ages, from teenagers on up. What we learn about the younger age groups informs our work with the older set, and vice versa. Because when it comes to money, we always say, it’s not just about money.

Take salary negotiations, for example. One thought bubble out there right now is that women earn less because they do not negotiate salaries as effectively as their male counterparts, if at all. So why not?

Let’s take a step back, and look at what happens as girls grow up, and what they learn about speaking up for themselves, and knowing and acknowledging their talents and skills.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan has shown that girls learn between the ages of 11 and 15 or 16 that it is dangerous for a a girl to say how she actually feels, compared to younger girls who are more courageous. Conversations with older adolescents can be marked by the phrase “I don’t know” when a few years earlier, the girls were outspoken and confident.

Another psychologist, Mary Pipher, talks in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls about how girls who speak frankly are labeled negatively, and that girls are trained in society to be feminine, and to “achieve, but not too much.”

Here is my experience as a mother and a teacher. Around middle school, I remember my daughter and her friends starting to say that it was not nice to “brag,” which really meant, say positive things about themselves. Later, in my financial education classes with high school girls, I saw the evolution of that idea. When I asked my students if they would ever try to negotiate a higher salary, one girl said she was the one who should sacrifice, and not ask for more money as it could hurt the company or other people working there. Another girl said she would never speak up for herself; she would work hard and wait to be noticed.

Salary negotiations can be tricky. Part of the process is speaking up for one’s skills and contributions, defining that value in the workplace, and asking for more of the employer’s scarce resources for yourself. So, if you are someone who has grown up being taught not to “brag” or be honest about yourself, and to be feminine, and to “achieve, but not to much,” chances are explaining your skills and asking for recognition of your value, is not going to be something that comes easily to you.

While the gender wage gap is caused by a number of different factors, an unwillingness to negotiate is certainly one of them. Carnegie Mellon economics professor Linda Babcock suggests that men are four times as likely as women to negotiate their salary. When we look at the evolution of adolescent girls, it is easy to see where women’s reluctance in this area might come from. And once we know where a problem comes from, the solution becomes that much clearer.



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