Wage Discrimination Begins In Our Minds

by Gudrun Sander

Every year we continue to complain about it – the Equal Pay Day. This year it falls on the 17th of March in Germany, marking the number of days that women have to do unpaid work in order to match the annual salary that men already received at the turn of the year. A large part of the wage difference cannot really be explained. Perhaps, it is worthwhile to clear up old patterns in our minds again

Unconscious norms shape our everyday actions. We all have unreflected assumptions about what we perceive as “normal”, whether it is regarding partnership, family, business or society. We pass these implicit ideas onto our children. Those ideas don’t imply that women are the main breadwinners of families, that men do most of the unpaid care work, that women manage tunnel construction sites, program software or decide on investments worth billions. Even five to seven-year-olds know what are gender roles and who is responsible for what work.

Same Behaviour, Different Perceptions

Deviations from these “norms” consequently irritate us and challenge us in a recruitment process. We perceive equal behaviour of women and men differently. Impressive experiments, e.g. at Yale University in 2013, showed that identical CVs and linguistically completely identical interview responses led to a worse assessment of women by recruiters. If a woman communicates directly, she appears to be aggressive. With a man, we perceive the same behaviour as assertive. When assessing CVs and conducting interviews, managers and HR people are therefore challenged in their ability to reflect. Those stereotypes then lead to lower starting salaries or even fewer promotions.

Poor Wage Negotiations

Indeed, a recent study by Universum in 2018 shows, that male graduates demand higher wages than their female colleagues. In terms of gender norms, women are often expected to be more likeable and think of others. When women then stand up for themselves, they feel that they do not meet those gender norms and, as a result, have worse career prospects, which is why they prefer not to negotiate wages. In fact, experiments have shown, that when a woman wants a higher salary, supervisors automatically perceive her as less pleasant and her demands as excessive. On the positive side, young women under 40 are more successful in wage negotiations than older women. Standards therefore are changing over time. How can we accelerate the process?

Transparency and Clean Up Old Ideas

A study by the Harvard Kennedy School shows, that the pay gap between female and male candidates almost disappears when they know about the pay bands. So, if there is transparency and the awareness of bargaining space, women and men achieve similar results in wage negotiations. The easiest and most cost-effective way is to change the perspective. “Would this wage demand have irritated me even if I would deal with a man” or “Would I have offered a man with the same skills and experience the same wage as the female applicant?” – These and similar questions help us to get to the bottom of our own bias and to guarantee equal wages right from the start. In this way we can help to ensure that Equal Pay Day is then also on the .1st of January for women.

Gudrun Sander is Adjunct Professor of Business Administration with special emphasis on Diversity Management at the University of St. Gallen (HSG) in Switzerland

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