For the book I have underway, No Regrets: A Reality Check on Work, Motherhood and Long-Term Financial Security, I’ve asked women “what they’re glad they did” or “what they wish they had done” in terms of work-life choices they made and the impact on long-term financial security.
A Global Head of Human Resources for a financial services firm told me this:
“As a professional, wife and mother, I’m constantly looking out for others. I often advocate for employees in challenging situations or straddle the line when backing the business. But when it comes to advocating for myself, I tend to be cautious and very rarely speak up with the same passion. But this year I gave myself a pep talk, focused on confidence building skills, rehearsed my delivery, and assumed my HR role to advocate for myself. My company expects employees to do this—and when I did I got a bump in salary, bonus and title. I earned these things, but speaking up showed my boss (and me) that I wasn’t willing to be a passive participant in my own career. I’m glad I spoke up because the money I earn matters to my family. It pays bills, subsidizes vacations, and gives financial stability to retirement and college plans.”
Great “case study”—but I wondered how a senior Human Resources professional—one who helps women assert themselves in leadership roles—could be so reticent about speaking up for herself. When I dug deeper, I found some realities about the gender pay gap:
9 Lives: If you know your company expects employees to ask for raises and promotions, why didn’t you advocate for yourself earlier?
HR Pro: Like most women, I’ve never received very specific training on how to be your own advocate. Most women work hard and hope for recognition—men work hard and ask for recognition. My best mentor challenged me to go beyond just completing a task (where women often get buried) and to be prepared to deliver broader business objectives (which men are more focused on doing). This mentoring helped me see the big picture and the bottom line, but it did not specifically focus on the leadership skills women need to advocate for themselves—and these skills come more naturally to men.
An example is how men frame their “ask” for promotions and pay increases. Men provide business justification while women focus on personal factors. The more emotion injected into the conversation, the less favorable the result for the employee.
I also had to silence my own voice of doubt…the one that says you should feel grateful for what you do have…that you should not rock the boat…that the uncomfortable conversation doesn’t need to happen because they’ll recognize your efforts. Professional women need to stop these internal monologues and focus instead on the skills it takes to vocalize the value of their contributions and achievements.
9 Lives: Does the business environment tamp women down and make them feel it’s not their right to ask for raises or promotions?
HR Pro: The wage gap is less about outright gender discrimination and more about qualities that motivate individuals to speak up for themselves. Personality traits and qualities that are fostered and valued in girls are, at times, in direct opposition to what makes a woman successful in business. Much later in life women find they have not fully cultivated the skills they need to advance in business: risk-taking, assertiveness, self-advocacy and more.
9 Lives: So you don’t see an unconscious bias against women?
HR Pro: I haven’t really detected an unconscious bias against women, but there is the tendency to focus on the male candidate who has always made business justifications to support his advancement.
9 Lives: With so few women in the senior ranks at your company, is there any special effort to help women develop the skills to navigate their careers with more confidence?
HR Pro: Leadership efforts are not gender focused, they’re more based on a set of desired qualities: commitment, the ability to adapt easily, and confidence in presenting ideas and objectives are among the qualities universally sought for senior leadership roles. Women exhibit less confidence—they sit back and observe or second-guess themselves during business discussions.
9 Lives: At what level within the organization does this lack of confidence create the pay gap?
HR Pro: There is little room for negotiation in entry-level salaries. The pay gap becomes greater by the middle-management years when most men have been vocal about providing justification for increases and most women have been silent.
9 Lives: If women don’t ask for a raise, is that just a money-saving opportunity for a company? Is there any effort to keep men and women performing at equal levels at equal pay levels?
HR Pro: When any employee doesn’t ask for a raise the company can see it as a money-saving opportunity, regardless of gender. Some employers try to keep similarly situated and skilled employees at equal pay levels, but if a male manager asks for a salary increase with strong justification, it’s highly unlikely the company will automatically increase the peer female manager’s wages.
9 Lives: Earlier you said the traits of strong business professionals are not necessarily encouraged in girls. Is this true when mothers push daughters to get the best grades, get the leadership positions and get into the best schools? Those daughters graduate with the same degrees and often fade into the background by the middle management years. What happens?
HR Pro: Using your example of mothers pushing their daughters, there’s a potential flaw: it’s unlikely the child has been an active decision-maker in her path to success. Yes, all the parental prodding helps the daughter earn top honors and get into a good college, but has the young girl been encouraged to develop certain skills or just complete the tasks that lead to a desired outcome? From an early age women should be aware that a set of leadership skills will help them excel—and advocate for themselves–in all aspects of their lives.
This last comment from the HR Pro is a good one for all mothers to remember as they help young daughters build the skill set and confidence to speak up not only during school years, but also at every age and life stage. For women in the workforce now, it’s time to stop rehashing the fact the gender gap exists—and give smart, capable and high potential women more specific, back to basics, “catch-up” training on how to develop the set of skills that makes it less awkward and painful to speak out, ask for—and get–what their hard work deserves. —KAS
Microphone photo credit: sippakorn/www.freedigitalphotos.net