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California just made it legal to pay women less than men – are we going backwards?

It is now legal to pay a woman a crap wage because her previous boss did the same. And so the process repeats itself, ad infinitum, until hopefully women get the message and just give the whole ‘work’ thing up entirely

Kirsty Major
Friday 28 April 2017 13:55
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Only 16 per cent of women negotiate compensation when a job offer is made
Only 16 per cent of women negotiate compensation when a job offer is made

While it’s no longer socially acceptable to tell women to go back to the kitchen, sometimes it feels like some people are trying to give us a hint. I’m looking at you, US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges, who have just made it legal for a woman to be paid less than her male counterpart for doing exactly the same job if she was paid less by her previous employer.

That’s right: it is legal to pay a woman a crap wage because her previous boss did the same. And so the process repeats itself, ad infinitum, until hopefully women get the message and just give the whole “work” thing up entirely.

This ruling seems to be predicated on the idea that wages are judged solely on a candidate’s skills, knowledge and experience. They are judged on a set of objective metrics and are free from all bias, goes the argument. While this is true for a few lucky sectors where jobs are banded, for the rest of us, negotiating your wage involves a prickly ongoing conversation with your boss, and sometimes your boss can be sexist.

First there’s agreeing on your wage when you take a job. We’ve all had that awkward chat in the final round of the interview process: your dream job is almost in sight, and your prospective boss asks about your salary expectations. You slowly utter the beginning of a number, and then, judging by their reaction, add on as much as you can to it. It never ceases to be nerve-wracking.

Then there are the negotiations – and this is where gender bias comes into play. According to one survey, only 16 per cent of women negotiate compensation when a job offer is made. Another study of graduating MBA students found that half of the men had negotiated their job offers as compared to only one eighth of the women.

The reasons for this are diverse; one study suggests that women try to avoid negative interactions. They correctly intuit that they will be adversely perceived by the person they are negotiating with. In short, their bosses see them as pushy for asking for more money, and bosses are more likely to see that as a negative trait in women.

Another study points to women’s pessimism about their earning potential as a reason for them not asking for more money. Women either don’t believe they deserve more money or believe that asking for it won’t be worth the negative consequences.

Contrary to these claims, however, it’s been found that women do ask for pay rises just as much as men, but are less likely to receive them. The reasons for that are unclear, not least because no manager is going to say outright that they’re motivated by sexism. But it’s undeniable that senior management is more likely to be male, as women continue drop off the career ladder due to child-caring responsibilities. TUC chief Frances O'Grady has said: “I think it’s very hard for women individually to go after a pay rise because male bosses are more likely to tell women ‘no’. They find it easier to tell women ‘no’ than men – we have research which backs this up.”

It’s the existence of such unspoken biases that makes the 1982 ruling which made it illegal for employers to pay women lower salaries than men for doing the same work are so important. They provide women with an equal playing field. There’s comfort in knowing that at least when we begin a job, we start on an equal footing with our male counterparts. Now, women in California are being denied even that.

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