The ‘Ask Gap’: Do Women Negotiate Salaries And Pay Rises Less Than Men Do? 

Sarah Lang looks into whether women don’t negotiate salary, renumeration or pay rises as much as men. Is this true, or a myth? Either way, what are some negotiating tips?

At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culturewhy perpetual striving might not make us happierworking-mum guiltletting go of perfectionismbattling burnoutjuggling work with the mental load and SO many more.

Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? Are there more things we could ask our employers for? And what changes might we want to see in the workplace?

Welcome to our series What Working Women REALLY Want. If you have story ideas, or are keen to be interviewed about a topic, please email us at [email protected]!

Communications officer Victoria*, a 31-year-old from Wellington, loves her job. But she applied for it despite knowing the salary band was less than the market rate for someone at her level in the industry. “I didn’t negotiate for a higher salary during or after my job interview,” she tells Capsule, “because I was worried they’d choose someone else who didn’t try to negotiate the pay up”. 

Two years later, she hasn’t asked for a pay rise. Why? “Because I want to achieve certain things first, and because I’m really grateful to have this job, and for its flexible hours.” 

Meanwhile her partner, a civil servant, has never applied for jobs with salary bands that he considered too low.  “He said he wouldn’t get out of bed for less than [a job paying] $100,000. And he got a job paying much more than that, and has negotiated a pay rise each year since.”

“He says to me ‘come on, why don’t you ask for more [money], you deserve it!’. I wish I could. I don’t know why I find it so hard.”

It can feel uncomfortable to bring up remuneration, especially if jobs in the industry are scarce. 

My colleague Alice O’Connell, formerly a print magazine editor, says, “maybe it’s a media thing, but I’ve interviewed dozens of people over the years and could count on one hand the number of women who were the ones to bring up remuneration. I’ve only ever interviewed about five or six guys (very female-skewed jobs!) but all of them asked about the pay before they even came in for an interview.”

Key Questions

Are women, compared to men, more likely to apply for jobs where the salary is less than they deserve? At job interviews, or when offered a job, are women less likely to negotiate as high a salary as men do? Also, are women, once in a job, less likely than men to ask for a pay rise? And if the answer to any of these questions is yes, is this a contributing factor to the gender pay gap (currently 8.6% in New Zealand)?

Some research suggests the answers are ‘yes’.

BBC story “How The Salary ‘Ask Gap’ Perpetuates Unequal Pay” reports that “women and minorities ask for – and are offered – lower salaries than white men. Closing this ‘ask gap’ can pay major dividends for careers, reducing long-term salary inequality”.

Meanwhile, article ‘Women May Ask For Less Money Than Men Do’ looked at a report by Hired, a digital platform that assists people searching for jobs. Analysing more than 100,000 job offers across 15,000 candidates and 3000 companies, the report found that “women may not ask for as much money as their male peers do. The average woman sets her annual salary expectations $14,000 lower than the average man”. 

There’s an intriguing nugget of information in article ‘Why Women Don’t Ask For More Money’, by Ashley Milne-Tyte. She spoke to University of Texas professor Emily Amanatullah who, as a grad student, devised an experiment. “In a simulation, she had men and women negotiate a starting salary for themselves. Then she had them negotiate on behalf of someone else. When the women negotiated for themselves, they asked for an average of $7000 less than the men [did]. But when they negotiated on behalf of a friend, they asked for just as much money as the men.” 

“Amanatullah says when women advocate for themselves, they have to navigate more than a higher salary: they’re managing their reputation, too. Women worry that pushing for more money will damage their image.”

Also, as women, we’re often conditioned not to be ‘pushy’ or ‘difficult’.

Ask but don’t get

However, some research suggests that women are asking.

Written by three professors, Harvard Business Review article ‘Research: Women Ask for Raises As Often As Men, But Are Less Likely to Get Them’ says: “one common explanation [for the gender pay gap] is that women are less likely to negotiate their salaries. We’ve seen this in both bestselling business memoirs like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and in previous studies like the research-based book Women Don’t Ask.  Gaining access to a more recent, and more detailed, dataset allowed us to investigate this question anew. What we found contradicts previous research.”

“The bottom line of our study is that women do ‘ask’ just as often as men. They just don’t ‘get’. Even we were surprised by the results. We had expected to find less asking by the females. Instead, we found that, holding background factors constant, women ask for a raise just as often as men, but men are more likely to be successful.”

Auckland sales rep Deandra*, 26, has asked but not got. “I asked in my interview for a higher salary, but was told they couldn’t afford it.” She took the job anyway. “Three years on, they’ve said no to a pay rise twice, saying they can’t afford it. But I’m pretty sure they can afford it.” She feels devalued. “I have to admit I wonder whether it would be different if I was a man.” 

Numbers game

The aforementioned article about the large Hired survey shares these concerning stats: “69% of the time, men receive higher salary offers than women for the same job title at the same company,” it states. “On average, companies offer female candidates around 3% less than their male counterparts, but in some cases, that gap goes up to 30%. Women who asked obtained a raise 15% of the time, while men obtained a pay increase 20% of the time.”

ARGH. We definitely can’t pin all these numbers on women’s lack of negotiation. Indeed, you could argue that these stats show that employers (who tend to be male) have conscious biases, and/or unconscious biases, that favour men over women. Research commissioned by the Ministry for Women found that conscious and unconscious bias are likely the most significant drivers of the gender pay gap. 

As part of this, there’s the ‘motherhood penalty’: where working mothers encounter disadvantages in pay, perceived competence and benefits, relative to childless women (there’s no ‘fatherhood penalty’).Again,ARGH.

Sandra Dickson, who works in violence prevention, has thoughts. “I feel like the focus on women ‘asking’ [for higher pay] misses the structural point. This is all about how employers value different people, and we probably don’t talk about that as much, because it’s uncomfortable to think ‘that employer believes it’s okay to pay women less, because they’ve made assumptions about how good women are at the job, or made assumptions about why women need money compared to why men need money’, and so on. So how do employers respond to women asking for more pay [initial salaries and pay rises] compared with men? What assumptions do they make that are unhelpful in terms of achieving pay equity?  For example, assuming a man has to support his family but not making that assumption about women. I’m wondering what impact the stories employers tell themselves have on enduring pay inequities.”

Good point. It’s often said that many women prioritise flexibility and other upsides of a job over the pay – but does a preconceived notion that women do this actually affect what an employer offers them?

Katie*, who once worked for an IT helpdesk, says “the only time I’ve fought really hard for a pay rise, I had higher qualifications, higher productivity and lower pay than male colleagues in the same job. My manager supported me, her manager supported me, and her manager decided the whole team was underpaid and moved us all up to the rate that had been recommended for me. So two less-qualified, less-productive men got a pay rise too.”

Yay, but also ARGH.

So How Do You Ask For More Money?

Sally*, a 37-year-old Wellingtonian, says: “I negotiated for more than I was initially offered in a role even though I was happy with the offer, mainly because of the discussion around women not negotiating. In saying that, my employer then gave me several pay adjustments over the next two years, including adjusting my pay in accordance with how I was performing within the team.” Her pay increased $25,000 in two years.

“That meant that, when I got an internal promotion, I was happy to take the first offer after discussing it with my manager, because I trust they’ll adjust my pay if it’s no longer fair. I also had guidance from a recruiter that the offer was consistent with the market.”

Practical Advice:

Before applying

  • Examine what the market rate is for a job in this industry at this level.
  • Ask what the salary/salary range is. If it’s nowhere near high enough, don’t apply. If the salary range is close to what you’d consider, it may be worth applying then trying to negotiate.

Negotiating the salary 

  • Focus on what the market is paying for people in similar roles in the industry.
  • Explain specific reasons why you deserve a certain salary. 
  • Negotiate for yourself like you would for a friend. 
  • Rehearse the conversation with a family member or friend to practise feeling any discomfort.

Negotiating a pay rise

  • Consider the best time to ask. This could be after achieving a milestone such as having been there two years, or at the end of the fiscal year, or when you’ve just aced something. Choose a time when you think your boss isn’t swamped.
  • Set up a private, in-person meeting, rather than asking over email, as you can better argue your case and your boss is less likely to say an outright ‘no’. 
  • Explain what justifies the pay rise. Make a mental list of your recent accomplishments – e.g. meeting a major goal.

The wider goal? Paying women more fairly.

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