New research shows women do ask for raises as often as men—they just don’t get them

Winning the gender jackpot.
Winning the gender jackpot.
Image: Reuters/Steve Marcus
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It’s a well-worn trope that women are paid less than men because they aren’t as aggressive in asking for raises. They are more concerned with fitting in, goes the argument, and they don’t want to be perceived as overly demanding. In short, it’s women that are the problem, not their bosses.

But a new study (pdf) offers a different scenario.

Researchers from Cass Business School and the universities of Warwick and Wisconsin examined data from the Australian Workplace Relations Survey (AWRS), which studied 4,600 randomly sampled workers across 840 Australian workplaces between 2013-2014. The survey is unique in that it includes a raft of questions not asked in other survey data, including whether respondents’ pay is set by negotiation with the company, whether they have successfully obtained a wage rise since joining the employer, whether they preferred not to attempt to negotiate a pay rise because they were concerned about their relationships, why they decided that, and their levels of satisfaction.

On first glance, the data upholds the conventional wisdom: 75% of males said they had asked for a pay rise, compared with 66% of women. But when the researchers controlled for hours, comparing part-time women with part-time men, and full-time women with full-time men, the difference vanished: men and women asked for raises with the same frequency.

But there was a huge difference in outcomes. Men were 25% more likely to get a pay rise, the study found. In other words, it is not that women don’t ask for more money, only that they don’t get it.

“We were shocked,” said Amanda Goodall from Cass Business School, part of City University of London. “ We thought that we would find women were genuinely more reticent, and less likely to ask for a pay rise. And that is not what we found.”

If women are asking for raises as much as men, the big unanswered question is, why aren’t they getting them?

Theories abound as to why the gender pay gap exists, including the possibility that women might choose less ambitious (pdf) and less lucrative jobs than men, or that it is “risky” for women to be ambitious because it deviates too far from prevailing conceptions of femininity (there’s a term for it: “identity costs”). There is also the possibility that it’s all just one big self-fulfilling prophecy.

The paper cites Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn laying out one of the most common explanations: “Women’s lower propensity to negotiate over salaries, raises, or promotions could reduce their pay relative to men’s. The observed gender difference could reflect social factors, including women being socialized to feel that they are being pushy or overbearing…”

That’s not what the researchers found, however. The study also debunked the popular myth that women are more concerned about negatively impacting their workplace relationships by asking for a raise. Among men, 14.6% said they had not tried to get a pay rise because of concern for their relationships in the workplace, compared with only 12.9% of women. “There seems not to be evidence for that idea, either, in the data,” the authors wrote.

Of course, it’s possible that these Australian results would not hold true elsewhere in the world: Australians are different. Another potential weakness of the study could be that people might be less than honest. Perhaps men who asked for a raise and did not get it would not want to report it. But the researchers tried to test every possible explanation, including whether women were more satisfied with their work, so less in need of a raise. (They were not.)

The researchers did find some significant differences in men’s and women’s employment situations. Women were less likely to be in a job where pay is negotiated. And when it came to part-time workers, both men and women were less likely to ask for and get raises. This disproportionately affects women, who work in more part-time positions.

And there was one hopeful sign: The researchers found that women and men under 40 both asked for and received pay rises at the same rate.

Only time will tell, as this group ages, whether some generational change is underway—with women negotiating more effectively or workplaces becoming more aware of gender discrimination. But for now, Goodall is willing to call it good news.

“It’s bloody positive,” said Goodall.