Today is Equal Pay Day, which means that we get to read lots of things written by women about how we can close the gendered wage gap, while men (generally) continue to ignore a problem that doesn’t affect them personally. We have a president in the White House who, despite his daughter’s pledge the fight for the rights of working women, has rolled back protections against women in the workplace when he revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Act last week. Equal pay for equal work, which used to be a bipartisan issue, doesn’t seem to matter so much to the GOP anymore.
The wage gap, of course, is not created equal among women. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), white women make 75% of what white men make; Asian women make 85%, African-American women make 63%,— and Hispanic and Latina women make just 54%. The wage gap is largest in Wyoming and smallest in New York.
In order to help close the wage gap, well-meaning organizations (like the AAUW) offer salary negotiation classes for women. The idea behind these classes is that the pay gap exists, at least in part, because women don’t know their worth and therefore don’t ask for more money. If we only knew how to negotiate, a popular line of arguments posits, our salaries would go up.
The mantra goes something like, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
In theory, this makes total sense. But in practice, it’s much more complicated than that. Sheryl Sandberg wrote an entire book encouraging women to Lean In and act “more like men” in the workplace, arguing that if women were more assertive and confident, they would be able to move up the ladder at their jobs. But in the years since her book was published, even Sandberg has walked back her theory. Just last week, she admitted that women are no better off than they were when her book was published, despite the fact that they are, indeed, leaning in.
Not only is the wage gap not budging despite women’s best efforts, but asking women to assert themselves in hostile and male-dominated industries can actually backfire. In fact, women who are seen as pushy or demanding are more likely to be punished or fired at work— this is backed by studies! Not only that, women who adopt “masculine” leadership styles are often seems as unlikeable, unfeminine, and possessing poor interpersonal skills. We all know an example or two of this, don’t we?
Women can and should ask for more money if they feel they’re in a position to do so (though we need to acknowledge that even being able to ask for more money is a privilege in itself, one dependent on safety, education, and immigration status, among other things), and it’s great to teach us how to do so. But when we’re discussing the pay gap, the onus should never be on us to overcome our own oppression by essentially bootstrapping our way to equal pay. That might work for some women, but it will not work for most women.
Women asking for more money is not going to solve the wage gap, because this solution attempts to solve a systemic problem with individual behavior on the part of the person who is being marginalized by the system, which never works. It was the great Audre Lorde who said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
If women could solve the wage gap simply by acting differently, don’t you think we would have done it already?