Is it time to ask for a raise? Neil Irwin at The Upshot writes that this could (finally) be a good year for wages, with small businesses, and a big health insurer, planning to increase pay. And The Billfold titled a recent post “The Year America Gets a Raise” (though its author, Mike Dang, also cautioned that “we can only watch and wait” to see if wages really rise).
But even a large-scale increase in wages might not benefit everyone equally — asking for a raise, some say, works better for some employees than for others.
At The Atlantic, Bourree Lam reports on a study by the salary information firm Payscale, which found that of those who asked for raises, 44 percent actually got the amount they were looking for. Twenty-five percent got no raise at all. And at least among workers with M.B.A.s, women had worse luck than men: Their requests for raises were turned down 21 percent of the time, while men’s were denied just ten percent of the time.
In the wake of Linda Babcock’s popular 2003 book “Women Don’t Ask,” said Joan C. Williams, a law professor and co-author of the book “What Works for Women at Work,” many blamed wage inequality on women’s failure to speak up and request raises. But, Dr. Williams argued, research has found “that women who do ask for raises tend to be disliked, and often end up making lower starting salaries.”
“Stereotypes are that women are supposed to be modest and self-effacing,” she said — and asking for a raise flies in the face of those. And, she added, “when men ask for raises they’re also often seen as negotiating for their families” — women aren’t seen as family breadwinners, even when they are. “So it may seem selfless for a man to negotiate for a raise because after all he has to support his family, whereas a woman, she’s just a prima donna on an ego trip.”
Those asking for raises may face discrimination on the basis of race as well as gender, she notes. “To the extent that white men kind of get a pass on swagger,” she said, “that’s denied to other people.”
For black women, says Robert Livingston, a professor of organizational behavior who studies race and gender in the workplace, bias can work in multiple ways. “The stereotypes are quite different for African-American women compared to white women,” he said, “and it’s not perceived as being as much of a violation of stereotype expectations for African-American women to be a bit more direct.” However, black women are “held to a different level or expectation of performance” than white women. “If a white woman and a black woman both make a mistake on the job,” he said, “then the black woman is the first to go, before white women or black men, because they’re two degrees removed from the prototypical stereotype of a leader, which is a white male.”
When Dr. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall surveyed sixty female scientists of color, they also found that black women were “allowed more leeway than other groups of women to behave in dominant ways” — but that they also reported having to “provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves to colleagues.” Asian-American women, they found, faced greater censure for behaving assertively than women of other races, and Latina women reported that they were sometimes called angry or “too emotional” if they asserted themselves.
As for black men, Dr. Livingston said, “I think they would definitely face backlash when asking for raises or asking for promotion.” Some of his research shows that “black males benefit from having features that make them look more childlike,” he said — “and conversely, things that make black males look more cocky or arrogant or hyper-masculine or threatening really hurt black men.”
The opposite is true for white men — some research has even shown “that white men are punished for being too modest,” Dr. Livingston said. “If you’re a white male the world is pretty much your oyster. You can ask for what you want.” But for women of any race and for black men, “that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Kym Harris, the president and C.E.O. of a coaching company that works with female and minority professionals, said she’s never worked with a woman who got pushback for asking for a raise. However, she said, some companies don’t give women of color what they need to succeed: “We’re not getting feedback in organizations,” she explained, often because “people are afraid of how we’re going to respond to the feedback, and so rather than giving us feedback that will allow us to improve our performance, we don’t get anything until we begin to derail or it’s just too late.”
One reason for this fear, she said: the “stereotype of the angry black woman.” For some women of color, she said, “there’s an intensity that we bring sometimes that people misinterpret. And if you combine that intensity with the stereotypes and biases that some people hold there is an apprehension to give feedback, particularly constructive feedback.”
To combat this problem, she said, companies can “give consistent feedback,” not only “at performance appraisal time, but maybe quarterly, or every other month.”
And those in leadership roles can “be more open to mentoring and initiating relationships.” “When they see someone in the organization who happens to be a woman of color doing well, who has the potential to advance in the organization,” she advised, “reach out and invite that person to lunch, have coffee with that person, get to know that person more, open the door.”
“When you have authentic relationships,” she said, “you have trust. When you have trust, there’s feedback. When there’s feedback, you have confidence about where you stand as it relates to your performance and how you’re viewed in the organization.”
And, said Dr. Livingston, companies need to recognize that “there are different propensities for certain groups to put forth requests for raises or for promotions, and that there’s also different consequences when the groups do” — and that this contributes to pay inequality. Companies also need to be “taking proactive steps to change the organizational structure and the procedure” around raises and promotions — he mentioned the idea of “standardizing the promotion process” so that people don’t always have to ask.
If two people are doing equally well at their jobs, “but one person asks and the other person doesn’t for social reasons, then that’s unfair,” he said. “One is reaping the reward for something that he or she hasn’t really earned.”