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With corporate budgets squeezed, employees may feel lucky to get any sort of raise. But new research suggests women should question whether they're getting their fair share.

A study of 184 managers involved a scenario in which they were told they had a set amount of money to distribute to employees, who had identical skills and responsibilities.

Half the managers were told they might have to give the worker an explanation about the amount of the raise; in other words, they might have to negotiate. This group of managers, both men and women, consistently gave much smaller raises to female employees. In fact, raises for men were nearly 2.5 times larger than those for women, said Maura Belliveau, who did the research at Emory University in Atlanta and is now an associate professor of management at Long Island University in New York.

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The second group of managers were told they would not be able to explain their decisions. They gave equal raises to men and women.

Ms. Belliveau said the findings highlight a common notion that women are paid less than men for the same work because "women don't ask."

"Whenever research reveals disparities between men's and women's pay, there is a common retort: The gap 'must' be due to unobserved differences in men's and women's willingness or skill in negotiating for pay," she said. "Although some gender differences in negotiation exist, this study reveals women incur a major disadvantage that precedes any negotiation."

By flagging 70 per cent of the money for men, the first group of managers ensured men would not need to negotiate, as they already had a sizable raise, she said. If female workers tried to negotiate, they were at a disadvantage because most of the money was going to men.

"That's an extremely challenging task, even for a skilled negotiator," she said. "Managers and HR professionals need to closely monitor pay data in their organizations to ensure that the burden of low raises is not disproportionately placed on women."

The study appears in the journal Organization Science.

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