Watching women and men debate women's advancement in business has moved from a spectator sport to all-out combat.
Unfortunately for radio talk show host John Tory, comments he made earlier this week on the wage gap landed him on the front lines of this battle. But he may be half right, and if we don't see these discussions as an opportunity to fully examine the wage gap issue, it will persist.
To backtrack, Mr. Tory, who is rumoured to be considering a run for Toronto mayor this year, said that during his time running a company or law firm, far more men than women came to him to negotiate a higher salary.
"The women don't come as often to complain. The men do, so my experience is a little different in that I do think that more men put a fuss up about money than women," Mr. Tory told Stephen LeDrew in an interview with Toronto news station CP24 this week.
Mr. Tory's off-the-cuff comment opened a Pandora's box on Twitter, with some accusing Mr. Tory of being sexist.
But in a subsequent interview, he was far from dismissive of the persistent wage gap. "This continues to be a very serious issue and I dedicated a good part of my business and political life to getting this addressed, and continue to do so. Nothing that happens from a political dust-up will take away from my commitment to deal with these important issues," he told me.
So, let's step back and acknowledge that there is some validity to his original statement.
This idea that women don't ask for raises didn't come out of thin air. Ten years ago, Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, with co-author Sara Laschever wrote the book Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation – and Positive Strategies for Change. In their research, they found that men ask for things and negotiate two to three times as often as women do.
A study published last year by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that men are more likely to initiate wage negotiations, even if there is no indication that wages are negotiable.
There's nothing wrong with encouraging women to ask for more, even when it seems as if it's not an option. Carnegie Mellon even runs a negotiating academy for women.
The problem with the "women don't ask" argument is that it risks blaming the victim and tells only half the story.
Often women don't negotiate because the repercussions can be severe. A 2011 study by women's advocacy group Catalyst called The Myth of the Ideal Worker showed that even when women ask, it doesn't get them as far ahead as their male colleagues.
Additionally, we can't ignore the notion that subconscious bias continues to permeate the work force. A woman asking for a raise may be turned down by a manager who believes that a woman's salary shouldn't be as high as a man's or that she doesn't need the raise since her husband is the top breadwinner.
Buried in this debate over why the wage gap persists are those naysayers who continue to assert that it doesn't exist, despite the evidence.
In December, Catalyst published a study that showed that high-potential women in their first job after completing their MBA earned $8,167 less than their male counterparts, and were offered fewer career-accelerating opportunities.
"The gender wage gap is a complex issue and reducing it to a couple of factors limits our ability as a society and as a business community to close the gap," said Susan Black, a Toronto-based diversity adviser and strategist.
"The reality is that the wage gap's persistence speaks to many interrelated factors – societal expectations and support structures, organizational practices and norms, as well as individual choices. Certainly, when it comes to individual choices, there is empirical evidence to support the observation that women, in general, don't negotiate as hard as men … but these factors don't explain the whole picture," she added.
Now to tackle Mr. Tory's other comment – that women should learn to play golf as a means to advance their careers. Again, he is half-right and I believe if we substituted a more relevant word – networking – for golf, then the comment seems fairly innocuous.
"Relationships are critical to business. If women exclude themselves from relationship-building opportunities that include both women and men in and out of the office, they are putting themselves at a fundamental disadvantage," said Martha Fell, an expert on women in the workplace.
"More women need to invest the time in any capacity available to them to strengthen their relationships with colleagues." added Ms. Fell, the former chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets, a Toronto-based advocacy group that hosts an annual golf tournament for both men and women.
So instead of dismissing his comments as sexist, perhaps we should be thanking Mr. Tory for raising the subject. The wage gap remains a complex and multifaceted issue that needs thoughtful discussion. If we can open a healthy debate on the topic, we stand a better chance of tackling it properly.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: email@example.com