In the ongoing debate over whether class trumps gender or race in shaping our lives for the worse, there’s a new entry. A new study finds that it isn’t just women who are afraid to ask for raises, but also some men. But instead of being penalized for being women, they’re being penalized for being low-status.
In order to understand why some men might not ask for raises, we have to understand why women don’t. The typical explanation given for the wage gap is that women make less money than men because they don’t ask for more money out of fear of backlash. Further research, however, disproves this: Even when women ask for raises, they still don’t get them, because — as women have always feared — employers view them negatively for trying.
That negative response is called social backlash: Women who ask for raises are seen as too aggressive by stepping outside the more deferential feminine role we prescribe them. Turns out, this same social backlash happens to men, too, but only if they are low-status. In both cases, it’s because men and women are violating something called “communality,” also known as concern for others.
The researchers on the study, Hannah Riley Bowles, Bobbi Thomason and May Al Dabbagh, explain this in a post at Harvard Business Review: “Putting others before oneself is not only a social expectation for women,” they write. “It’s a general social prescription for anyone who has lower status (for example, less wealth and less authority) in society. We value more highly the contributions of low-status workers when they are agreeable and serve collective interests. We have more patience for assertiveness and leadership from higher status workers. And, of course, not all men are ‘high-status’ workers.”
In other words, we perpetuate the idea that pay raises are a woman problem when they’re a poor problem, too. It’s an issue that’s been covered far less, but is slowly getting more notice. When the BBC was called out for overpaying men compared to women, Lewis Goodall argued that class had also been ignored as a major factor in the pay gap too.
“No fewer than 45 percent of the BBC’s best paid stars went to private schools,” Goodall writes. “That compares to 7 percent of the nation overall. Just think about that. If you send your child to private school it increases their chances of being one of the biggest names in TV and media by a factor of six.”
Science perpetuates this invisible class problem by largely ignoring it. The researchers note that most of the existing studies looking at raise negotiations focus purely on high-status workers — white degree-holding Americans going for management-level jobs — thus making it seem like it’s only gender mucking this up.
So to test this, they took the research to the Arab Gulf, where, they write, “men’s status as workers shifts drastically depending on whether they are seeking a job with a ‘local’ or ‘global’ employer,” meaning a Saudi Arabian company or a multinational corporation.
Here, they say, the global employer has a strong bias toward the Western educated, Western-experienced worker who can bring a “global perspective” to the job, and the belief that such employees work harder, too. Being local, they explain, is associated with being lazy.
Because of this dynamic, the researchers wanted to test whether local men would be afraid to ask for raises. They asked study subjects to respond to what they’d do if they were offered a job at a much lower salary than requested, switching up whether the company was a local or global employer. They found that with local employers, men were far more inclined to negotiate. With global employers, men and women were inclined to negotiate at the same rate.
Then they tested the perceptions of men and women who negotiated for more money with local versus global employers. They write:
So we flipped the scenario and the students read about a recent university graduate who was responding to a desired job offer with a second higher salary offer in hand. We randomly assigned the participants to read about a male or female local university graduate who either did or did not negotiate for a compensation match with the second offer.
Here’s what happened: When it was a local company, no one judged the man for negotiating for the higher salary, but they judged the woman, noting that the subject did not want to work with the woman who asked for the raise. But when it was a global company, the subjects said they didn’t want to work with men or women who negotiated for more money.
“Women experienced backlash regardless of the context while local men only experienced it in the global employment context, suggesting the participants thought it was fine for a local man to negotiate for higher pay with a local employer, but not with a global employer,” they write.
And the reason was identical: They perceived the men and women as equally “lacking in concern for others.” With women specifically, they were docked points for being “immodest” and “materialistic,” but overall, the men were viewed just as negatively.
The researchers conclude that not only do we need to address negotiation salaries for women and men, but also that in general, being able to ask for a raise at all is actually a privilege of status itself: “Granting more social permission to higher status people to raise their compensation through negotiation only contributes to inequality.”