It is a sad fact that many women are still paid less than men for the same work. The question is, who is responsible for this? In my opinion, women bear significant responsibility for this inequity. How might that be true? I believe part of the problem is that women do not represent themselves as strongly or confidently as their male counterparts. And if you believe it is up to the individual to represent themselves, then you can understand why this is a factor. Let’s take a look at the gender pay gap trends and how to narrow, or better yet, eliminate the pay gap.
In 1979, women’s median earnings were 62% of men’s, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of 2018, women’s earnings were 81% of men’s. While that is progress, I find it alarming that most of that gap was closed in the ’80s and ’90s. And the same data revealed that it has been relatively stagnant since 2004, ranging from 80% to 83%. A major contribution to narrowing the gap was that more women were getting educated. So, what is behind the stagnation over the past 15 years? I have a theory.
I work with both men and women as an executive coach. My pre-coaching experience was on Wall Street and in financial services, which are dominated by men. However, that ratio never bothered me. I think that’s because I wasn’t raised with gender inequity in mind. My family consisted of four girls, two boys and two working parents. We were all given the same message: You must go to college or join the military with the goal of self-support. The military was not just for the boys. And the girls were not told to find a good husband.
This was forward-thinking given it was in the ’70s, when only about one-in-five women working full-time had a college degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. My mother did earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees but not until after having had six children in the ’70s. My father had only earned an associate’s degree. I am grateful my parents did not take the dismal ratio of women’s education into account when they laid out their expectations for us. I embarked on my career having no concept of gender inequity — sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
Ironically, by being gender-neutral in my coaching, I have been able to help women exponentially. I did not realize this would be an outcome, but I now know that my work with men benefits my work with women. Let me illustrate an example of a consistent theme I noticed while coaching both men and women. When men look at a job description, they tend to focus on all of the qualifications they have. They don’t give much thought to the skills and qualifications they don’t possess, even if they have less than 50% of the qualifications.
When women look at a job description, they tend to belabor every qualification they don’t have. They won’t even discuss the qualifications they do have, even if it is 80% or more. I’ve seen this dynamic so many times over the course of a decade that I believe it is more than just a theory. This shows me that women are negatively self-critical, while men are positively self-critical.
Constant negative criticism through self-talk and downplaying credentials and accomplishments is like cancer to your confidence. It keeps eating at your confidence no matter how many more accomplishments you add to your resume. This attitude is a contributing factor to the gender pay disparity because women are often more guilty of this negative self-talk than men. This is why I believe many women are in their own way of success.
I was prompted to write this article after a recent experience with a female client. We had our coaching session via Zoom, as this is now the way of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. She showed me around her Manhattan apartment, and I caught a quick glimpse of a sign she wrote for herself on her front door. It said, “I am enough.” And this is coming from a board-certified physician and a Harvard Business School alumna. While that is directionally good, I saw it and said, “Girl, you are more than enough!” I created a new sign for her saying exactly that.
So, ladies, here’s what I recommend you do to help narrow or eliminate the gender pay gap:
1. Focus on what you have done versus what you haven’t. A great exercise is to take inventory of your accomplishments. Think back to all the fantastic things you’ve done in your career and the impact you’ve had and document it. This can be used as a study guide when you are interviewing for a new role or making a case for a promotion. This exercise works because these examples are facts, not bragging.
2. Build a habit of positive self-talk. Think first about the positives before you give yourself negative criticism. Ensure any criticism of yourself is constructive. For example, instead of saying, “I’m so bad at communicating over email,” say, “I’m working on my email communication skills.”
3. Use a comprehensive peer group to fairly assess your qualifications. Women tend to compare themselves to those they feel inferior to. So, it’s no wonder one would feel inferior. One or two data points do not make a fair assessment.
I work with a lot of Harvard-educated people, and they only compare themselves to other Harvard-educated people. They seem to forget the hard work it took to get into Harvard — it’s not your everyday school, yet they only compare themselves to their 900 classmates. Does that sample size make sense? Of course not. When you find yourself in the comparison game, ask yourself: “Am I using enough data points?”
Let’s move the needle on the pay gap this decade. It’s up to us women to move the stagnation toward equality!