“Negotiate like a white man.”
That was the sub-headline of a recent article I read offering tips on how to take charge of your finances this summer.
The writer’s intention was noble, no question. If we know women (and women of color particularly) earn less than white men, we should offer tips so they can swing the pendulum back in their favor. Clearly, white men must be doing something special at the bargaining table, right? They earn 20-40% more than women on average. So, of course, let’s get women to channel their inner Mark Cubans and finally close the stubborn gender wage gap already!
But there are two huge flaws in the way experts often speak to women about negotiating and earning more.
First, they almost always put the onus on the shoulders of the person at the table who has the least amount of power in most salary negotiations — in this case, women or really any job candidate for that matter.
And second, they assume white men are doing something right, while women are failing in some obvious way leading to their own pay inequity.
The fact is that white men don’t earn more than women because they are such amazing negotiators or possess some innate, magical business savvy we lack.
Thanks to unconscious bias and the way it influences hiring and compensation decisions — established by a multitude of studies — white men walk into a room and are given the benefit of the doubt in ways that women simply aren’t. According to one such study conducted in 2018, researchers found women are just as likely to ask for pay raises as men are, but they are less likely to actually get the raise. Women who asked for a raise received one 15% of the time, the study found, while men who asked got raises 20% of the time.
The penalty against women doesn’t just apply at the salary negotiation table, either. Here are other examples of how bias in favor of white men can play out in the real world and proliferate the gender wage gap:
A recruiter or hiring manager may look at a white man’s resume and interpret his lack of management experience as an opportunity to rise to a new challenge and put him forward for a senior role. That recruiter may see the same resume with a woman’s name attached and unconsciously come to an entirely different conclusion — this woman clearly lacks management experience, so let’s recommend someone who’s racked up more years in senior leadership. In a vacuum, this decision doesn’t seem biased but rather simply based on cold hard facts. But you can see how our innate bias toward white men as the default image of leadership literally lines their pockets with additional wealth while depriving women and people of color the same opportunity.
As a Black woman, I have walked into rooms throughout my career where I have been the most senior person at the table and yet I have been spoken to as if I am the intern. A senior leader at my company visited my office for a meeting with me and spent 10 minutes speaking with someone else before they realized they had pulled aside the wrong brown-skinned, curly-haired woman in the office. And I was told at least twice during annual reviews that I was intimidating to some colleagues and should focus on being easier to work with.
These are micro-aggressions that white men simply don’t face in the workplace. I was able to succeed in corporate settings in spite of them, becoming one of the highest paid women at my company and managing a team of more than 30 staff at the end of my five-year tenure.
I didn’t negotiate like a white man to get there. I worked hard to earn the trust and respect of my white male colleagues, the people who I knew were at the decision-making tables when conversations around promotion and compensation happened. And I fought for equal pay for my staff every chance I got, pointing out pay inequities between men and women doing the same job where the man earned more.
I did this because I knew good and well where the power truly lay and it wasn’t in the lap of the job candidate sitting across from me at the bargaining table. It was with me and all the other senior leadership at my company who had first-hand knowledge of our compensation budgets and exactly how much we were willing and able to pay for specific roles.
We have to hold corporations and senior leaders accountable for the role they play in proliferating the gender and racial wage gaps that continue to diminish the earning potential of women, especially women of color.
We have to be willing to have tough conversations about unconscious bias and put systems in place so that we can prevent our own human instincts from hindering progress.
For example, companies can make sure a diverse group of hiring managers review candidates for senior hires and have equal input. They can stop using arbitrary job requirements like a four-year college degree and certain years’ worth of experience to whittle down their hiring pools.
And they can routinely review compensation at all levels and ensure workers are being paid equitably across the board.
Let’s put the onus on the people who really hold the power and stop telling women to be better negotiators.
Mandi Woodruff-Santos is inclusive wealth-building advocate, career expert and co-host of the popular podcast Brown Ambition. Her work has appeared in CNBC, Business Insider, Teen Vogue and U.S. News & World Report.