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Mechanical engineering grad Maxime Chin.John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

Maxime Chin purposely made her pitch for more pay by voice mail, calling human resources on a Sunday afternoon when she knew no one would answer. She practised what she was going to say, and made notes so she wouldn't forget. "I was very nervous," says Chin, a mechanical engineering student in Vancouver. Her case was strong. She had co-op experience with the oil and gas company, and rave reviews from her boss. When the job offer came, she stalled: "Most students just say yes, right away. I told them I would think about it." She used the time to do her research, confirming the typical salary and seeking the advice of experienced female engineers. Then she left her message, and waited. "If you can have a vision in front of you of what your worth is," she says, "you have the confidence to go out there and ask for what you deserve."

It's not just her first paycheque that's at stake. While recent statistics show that gender wage differences for educated women have substantially narrowed at entry level, it widens as their careers progress. Studies have found that young women have lower salary expectations than their male peers, and expect to wait longer for promotions. With a well-executed counter-offer, Chin may have pre-emptively narrowed the gender wage gap and advancement prospects that continues to disadvantage women, especially those in male-dominated fields.

"If you start low, it is hard to catch up," says Dr. Elizabeth Croft, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia who conducts an annual workshop on negotiating salaries for her female students. At the seminar, she points out that women often accept lower salaries – a decision that has an impact on subsequent raises – and are more reluctant to demand promotions that force employers to recognize the value of their work.

Economists call this the "negotiating divide," and cite it as a contributing factor to the persistent gender wage gap – despite the "binders full" of highly educated women launching careers and the fretful foretelling of the "End of Men." New research is exploring the role that salary expectations and reticent job bargaining play in women's wages, as well as a shortage of mentors to set the record straight. Meanwhile, there are still records to be settled: Last fall, a group of female employees finally won a decades-old dispute about fair wages with Canada Post, even as Conservatives passed federal legislation limiting the right for women to sue employers.

The OECD has given Canada middling ratings when it comes to wage equity, and a report released this week by the World Economic Forum on the "global gender gap" saw Canada slip out of the top 20 in a list of 135 countries. It's an alarming result for a nation that prides itself on one-year maternity leave and female-dominated universities, but also somewhat misleading: The most disconcerting finding was the comparative lack of female politicians in leadership roles, but Canada actually ranked 12th in economic opportunities for women, and had high scores for health and education.

Compared to two decades ago, the wage gap has certainly narrowed, but there's no guarantee it will disappear with the next generation of women. As Croft observes, this isn't about one gender trampling over another: In a society of double-income families, ensuring that the Maxime Chins of the workforce get their fair share would represent a $126-billion cash infusion to Canadian households, according to a 2005 study by the Royal Bank of Canada.

These days, for educated women, the sexist boss is a more marginal player than the pressures to maintain an upwardly mobile career while making time for the kids. (It's hard to network, when the laundry and homework is still mostly a mom's responsibility.) It's often cited that women in Canada earn 72 cents for every dollar that a man earns, but that figure is based on annual salaries, lumps full and part-time workers together, and buries the more challenging reality for lower-income women. When hourly wages are compared, accounting for the fact that women often work fewer hours than men, the gender gap shrinks to about 85 cents. Women's salaries are also influenced by the occupations they choose. In health care for instance, where women dominate, the wage gap is 98 cents on the dollar; it remains wider in traditionally male fields such as engineering, partly because women, having only recently entered those occupations in large numbers, are clustered at entry-level jobs. The narrowing gender gap is also due to the fact that with the decline of manufacturing jobs, men tend to earn less. Still, the pattern remains: While new graduates start out equally, a study by Ottawa University economist Ross Finnie found that, between two and five years, the gender wage gap had widened again.

But that's where economists such as Nicole Fortin, at the University of British Columbia, suggest the "negotiation divide" comes into play. "Men tend to be overconfident and boast about their ability, and women might be more shy," shes says, suggesting the pattern takes root from early job experiences, when young women have traditionally taken low-paying jobs. It may be that young women start with a lower "reservation wage" – the amount at which they feel a job is no longer worth their time – and that follows them into adulthood. That's why she says parents and schools should do more to teach young women about salary expectations and job bargaining, suggesting stronger negotiation skills could reduce the gap by as much as 5 per cent. After all, a reticence to demand what's fair has a bottom-line impact, especially as an increasing number of women earn more than their husbands.

Wondering how Maxime Chin made out? Three days later, the company confirmed an 8-per-cent salary increase. What's more, she received a written clarification of her benefits, including a guarantee that her job was safe if she were to take maternity leave. "I am aware of my potential," she says. Next time, she won't make that point by voice mail.

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