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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Pay equity: Don’t ask, don’t get Add to ...

I was 22 when I got my first real job, with a book publisher. I was basically a file clerk. It paid just $5,000 a year, which wasn’t much even then. Soon, I got my first real promotion – to publicity, where my job was to make sure the authors showed up for media interviews on time and sober. I was thrilled. But one day I realized I was still making $5,000. Sweaty and nervous, I meekly asked my boss, Oliver Twist-like, if I could please, sir, have some more. To my astonishment, I got it.

That’s how I learned one essential lesson about the working world. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Last week, John Tory, the Toronto talk-show host and undeclared mayoral candidate, tried to make this point on his program. Men, he said, are more aggressive about asking for raises, and that is one reason why they earn more than women. Naturally, a torrent of outrage ensued. Critics griped that Mr. Tory is a sexist, elitist one-per-center.

But Mr. Tory is absolutely right. I know this from my own experiences in management. The men were always asking for raises, promotions, good assignments, fancy titles. The women, not so much. Men over-ask. Women under-ask. And when they do, they’re so … apologetic.

Countless studies bear this out. Carnegie Mellon professor Linda Babcock compared the starting salaries of students graduating from Carnegie Mellon with master’s degrees. Sure enough, the men were paid a whopping $4,000 more than the women, on average. Why? Because they negotiated harder. Fifty-seven per cent of the men asked for more money than they were offered, but just 7 per cent of the women did. Over time, the snowball effect of a higher starting salary can be significant.

Men are obsessive about status, and therefore money. But a lot of women are afraid they’ll seem too pushy if they ask for more. The good news is that when they do, they often get it. One survey, reported in The Wall Street Journal, found that three out of four women who asked for raises got them. And half of those got as much as or more than they expected.

But wait (I can hear you sputter). So what if women are more timid? Men’s and women’s earnings are so unequal that it hardly matters. In a world where women make just 77 cents for every dollar men make (or 87 cents, the figure that is often used in Canada), it’s outrageous to blame the victims.

These numbers are repeated so often (most recently by the President of the United States) that everybody knows they’re true. Except they’re not. They are the meme that won’t die. The truth is that after you account for the gender differences in occupation, education, job position, work experience and hours worked, the actual pay gap shrinks to about 5 cents, according to scholar and equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers.

The single biggest reason men make more money is their choice of occupation. As Ms. Sommers points out, writing in The Daily Beast, the highest-paying occupations (mainly engineering) are overwhelmingly male-dominated, while the lowest-paying ones (early childhood education, social work) are overwhelmingly female. Whether that’s the way it should be is arguable, but beside the point. A lot of women freely choose work that pays less, and they’re not about to choose petroleum engineering, even if it pays more.

As for the residual 5 cents, I wouldn’t be surprised if some residual discrimination is to blame. But our don’t-ask problem is an issue too. We can narrow that gap by being more assertive, in our own friendly but firm female fashion. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg puts it: Lean in.

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