Carol Frohlinger calls it the Thin Pink Line.
"There is a very narrow band of acceptable behaviour for women in the workplace," says the New York-based co-author of Her Place at the Table and principal of Negotiating Women Inc., a consulting firm for the advancement of women. "If you go too far, you are not assertive, but aggressive, and if you go too far on the other side, you could be considered too collaborative, too weak."
For many women, this behavioural corset - fashioned from "psychological, sociological, anthropological and illogical" factors, Ms. Frohlinger says - hits them where it really hurts: their paycheque. They don't ask for the raise or the promotion, especially in these times, when many people, including men, are so grateful to have a job that they accept whatever terms their employers stipulate.
Interestingly, the very traits that are often identified as women's strengths - their interest in sustaining positive relationships, ability to work well in a team and to build consensus - can be their biggest liabilities when it comes to getting what they want in their careers and what they deserve in their bank accounts.
"Women often avoid negotiating because they are worried that a disagreement about the meat of a negotiation actually represents conflict," says Sara Laschever, co-author of last year's Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want .
The gender divide in how man and women approach negotiations and their attitudes about the worth of their work is the latest frontier in the effort to achieve pay equity in the workplace, experts say. While there have been fluctuations in the pay difference between men and women in the last 10 years, there has been no lasting shift in one direction. From 1997 to 2008, the difference between the median hourly wage rate for men and women across all industries has remained an average of $3, according to Statistics Canada. This country, like the United States, is in a gender wage rut.
A number of factors contribute to the complexity of the problem. Some of the old feminist bugaboos - the glass ceiling, the old boys network - are alive and well, says Barbara Stanny, coach, speaker and author of several books on women and money, including Overcoming Underearning: Overcome Your Money Fears and Earn What You Deserve. But there are also many psychological barriers and pervasive societal stereotypes that make it more tricky for women to actively advocate for themselves. "It's part of our collective conscience: Nice girls don't talk about money," she says.
And contrary to the popular assumption that the problem lies only with the boomer generation - who may have unconsciously modelled the demure, "nice girl" behaviour of their housewife mothers - younger women, many of whom grew up with working mothers, often exhibit the same tendencies, report the experts.
"We women devalue ourselves," says Ms. Stanny. "We give away our time, our knowledge and our expertise for free or bargain prices because we don't think we're worth more. There's this little voice in our head, 'Who do you think you are?'… And we are notoriously co-dependent. We often put everybody else's needs before our own, even those of our boss."
It begins early in life. "Despite all the advancement that we believe we have made and despite the huge cohort of women who have entered the work force, we still raise children in the same way," points out Ms. Laschever.
"From the day they are born, there is an expectation for girls to behave in a certain way. We don't like pushy, selfish, bossy and conceited girls." Girls often do well in school because they follow the rules and know that if they work hard, they will win praise. "But in the work world, that's not the case. You need to hustle more than that. You need to ask for credit and recognition. You need to ask for opportunities. And you need to ask for money, which is a tricky one for women," Ms. Laschever says.
"Typically, when boys and girls are growing up, girls are expected to help out, but they are not paid to do it. And boys are much more frequently paid for chores. Dad will say, 'If you rake those leaves, I'll give you 10 bucks.' Boys learn that they work for money.… Girls learn that they work for love."
The way out? "You have to be willing to be uncomfortable," advises Ms. Stanny. "There is a direct correlation between the amount of resistance you feel and the level of success on the other side." Talking about money may feel uncomfortable, but it is part of business, and should be addressed in a professional manner. Find out comparison salaries in your industry for other people with your experience and education and use that as a benchmark, she says. Having a competing job offer is a highly effective bargaining tool with your current employer. Express your desire for a promotion if you want more of a challenge. As Ms. Frohlinger notes, "No one in the workplace is going to single you out to tell you what a great job you're doing and you should get a raise or a promotion. You have to ask."
But beware of the pervasive cultural stereotypes, adds Ms. Laschever. "There's lots of research showing that for women to be effective they need to be perceived as likeable. It's not the same for men. Women need to please socially when they are negotiating, when they are asking for credit. If they do not… often people don't hear their arguments, and they push back. The women are seen as threatening."
Ms. Laschever respects women who refuse to conform or "manage" their personal style, she insists. "I'm just saying that it's a pragmatic approach. It has been shown to work better for women."
And while women's avoidance of perceived confrontational encounters may hinder them from asking for what they want, other aspects of a typically feminine approach can help. "If they use social intuition and sensitivity to people, to what's going on, this can be very effective in negotiation," says Ms. Laschever. "Negotiation scholars say that a more co-operative approach is better for both sides." If you get a no, well, ask again at a later date.
One thing is clear, Ms. Laschever says. "If you get yes right away, you're definitely not asking for enough."