Ask the Headhunter: Women don’t cause the pay gap. Employers do​

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Female architect examining documents at desk. Creative image #: 107670162 License type: Rights-managed Photographer: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Too often women get paid less for doing the same jobs men, and the reason is not what you’re told, says Nick Corcodilos. Photo by Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Too often women get paid less for doing the same jobs as men. And the reason is not what you’re told. Although it seems to elude the media, the experts, pundits and even some women themselves, the real reason is obvious to any forthright business person: Employers pay women less, because they can get away with it.

Worse, the same pundits tell women that it’s their problem and that they must change their behavior if they want to be paid fairly for doing the same work as men. But the experts, researchers, advocates and apologists are all wrong. There is no prescription for underpaid women to get paid more, because it isn’t women’s behavior that’s the problem.

There is only one thing a woman should have to do to get paid as much as a man: her job.

There is only one thing a woman should have to do to get paid as much as a man: her job.

When doing the job doesn’t pay off, women of all ages should be aware of what younger women today are doing to fight back. According to a recent study by the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, some women have figured it out. Millennial women don’t need instructions to change their negotiating, child rearing, educational or any other behavior to impress errant employers. They know to quit and move on. It’s going to be the new trend.

The myths about women causing their own pay problem

Let’s look at what women are supposedly doing to abuse themselves financially.

We can refer to umpteen surveys and studies about gender pay disparity — and to some that suggest there is no disparity. But a recent Time analysis summarizes the data from the U.S. Census and other sources: “Women earn less than men at every age range: 15% less at ages 22 to 25 and a staggering 38% less at ages 51 to 64.”

READ MORE: Don’t count on corporate gender quotas to break the glass ceiling

This has become favorite fodder for the media — and for armchair economists, gender researchers and pundits looking to bang out a blog column. But I think most of the explanations about pay disparity and the prescriptions for how to get equal pay for equal work are bunk.

Depending on what you read, women get paid less because they:

  • Have kids.
  • Interrupt their careers for their families.
  • Don’t have the right education (e.g., math and science), so they can’t get good jobs.
  • Are nurturing, so they don’t negotiate hard for equal pay.
  • Don’t like to argue.
  • Lack confidence.
  • Let their men (who are also managers) get away without doing household chores — so those men don’t know they should pay women fairly.
The message is always the same: If women would just change some or all of those behaviors, they can shrink the pay gap.

It’s all speculation and myth, but the message is always the same: If women would just change some or all of those behaviors, they can shrink the pay gap.

I say bunk. Women don’t cause the pay gap. Employers do. So employers should change their behavior.

The fact

I’ve been a headhunter for a long time. I’ve seen more job offers and observed more salary negotiations than you’ll see in a lifetime. I’ve observed more employers decide what salaries or wages to pay than I can count. And I am convinced the media and the experts are full of baloney about the pay gap between men and women. They are so caught up in producing eye-popping news that they’re doing women a disservice — and confusing speculation with facts.

Here are the facts:

  • Employers pay women less to do the same work that men do.

Well, there’s just one fact, and that’s it.

Women don’t make themselves job offers, do their own payroll or sign their own paychecks. The gender pay disparity is all — all — on employers, because we start with a simple assumption: A job is worth x dollars to do it right, no matter who does it. It’s all about getting the work done. And the employer decides whom to hire and how much to pay.

READ MORE: Why women are often put in charge of failing companies

Here’s the hard part for economists and experts to understand: Employers decide to pay women less, simply because they can get away with it. The law of parsimony instantly leads us to the obvious explanation: Paying less saves companies money. Everything else is speculative claptrap.

A review of the bunk

Let’s look at some of the “analysis” about why women are paid less than men. Look closely: It all delivers one absurd message: Women are the problem, so women should change their behavior.

Glassdoor, the oft-reviled “employer review” website, reports that overt discrimination may be part of the cause of gender pay discrepancies. But, claims Glassdoor’s economist Dr. Andrew Chamberlain, “occupation and industry sorting of men and women into systematically different jobs is the main cause.”

“Sorting?” Armchair apologist Chamberlain is saying women apply for jobs that pay less, and men apply for jobs that pay more. While this may sometimes be true, what he fails to note is that when a man and a woman do the same job in the same industry, one is paid less because the employer pays her less. The absurd prescription for women: This will change if only women will change their behavior.

Employers decide to pay women less, simply because they can get away with it.

Then there’s this Huffington Post interview, in which Wharton researcher Bobbi Thomason says that to fix the gender pay gap, “We need to have men getting involved at home with childcare and other domestic responsibilities.”

Gimme a break. Women, when you get men to wash dishes, you’ll change how boss men pay female employees. The prescription: It’s all up to you. Change your behavior at home.

The Exponent, reporting on Purdue University’s Equal Pay Day event on April 12, says that the wage gap is “largely based on the fact that, generally, women don’t negotiate their salary once they get into their career field.” Those women. Dopes. They’re doing the wrong thing — that’s why they get paid less! Change your behavior!

READ MORE: Women eschew Wall Street’s boys’ club — and its glass ceiling

Kris Tupas, treasurer of the American Association of University Women chapter at Purdue, explains that employers pay women less “because our culture teaches women to be polite and accept what they’re given.” Again the prescription is for women: Change your behavior!

Linda Babcock, professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote a book that explains women’s fundamental problem: “Women Don’t Ask.” Says Babcock’s book blurb:

It turns out that whether they want higher salaries or more help at home, women often find it hard to ask. Sometimes they don’t know that change is possible — they don’t know that they can ask. Sometimes they fear that asking may damage a relationship. And sometimes they don’t ask because they’ve learned that society can react badly to women asserting their own needs and desires.

Women get paid less, because they don’t ask. Gimme another break. The prescription: Women — you have to ask. Change your behavior!

Fox News’ Star Hughes-Gorup tells women how they can fix the pay gap: “Get educated.” If you want to make as much as the guy in the next cubicle who’s doing the same job, hey, get more schooling after the fact to impress your employer.

Next, says Hughes-Gorup, “Embrace asking for help.” Yep — if you learn how to ask properly, you can “start the conversation” about money. In time, you’ll be worth more. She sums it up: “I believe true progress will be made when we acknowledge that the real issue deterring women from talking about money is not confidence, but self-imposed limitations in our thinking.”

The prescription: Women: If you stop limiting your thinking, you’ll get paid more. So, get with it! Change your behavior and your thinking!

Millennial women have the solution

Why do all those articles prescribe how women must change their behavior to get paid more when it’s the employers making the decision to pay them less? Should women appease employers, or should they respond to unfair pay some other way?

Surveys over the years show that the top reasons people quit their jobs include 1) dissatisfaction with the boss and 2) work-life balance. Money is not the main reason.

“Our research shows that the top reasons why [millennial] women leave are not due to family issues. The top reasons are due to pay and career advancement.”

But something has changed — especially for millennial women. Lauren Noel, co-author of a report from the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, says that, “Our research shows that the top reasons why [millennial] women leave are not due to family issues. The top reasons are due to pay and career advancement.”

The report itself quotes women under 30 saying that the number one reason they quit is: “I have found a job that pays more elsewhere.”

What’s interesting is that the HR executives Noel surveyed didn’t get it — HR thinks “that the top reason why women leave is family reasons.” Is it any wonder employers attribute lower pay to the “choices” women supposedly make?

Millennial women are the generation of female workers that has figured out they’re not the problem. Unlike their older peers, they’ve figured out that when they’re not getting paid what they want, they quit and go work for an employer who will pay them more.

READ MORE: How can we promote gender equality in the workforce?

As a headhunter, I know firsthand that quitting is the surest way to take control when you’re underpaid and your employer will not countenance paying you fairly.

Kudos to millennial women who take the initiative and who don’t blame themselves or alter their own behavior when an employer’s behavior is the problem. I wonder how many employers have taken notice. Do they realize the generation of female workers that’s coming up the ranks isn’t going to tolerate financial abuse — they’re just going to walk?

Do we need a law?

I’m not a fan of creating laws to dictate what people should be paid. But I’m not averse to regulations about transparency and disclosure.

With some simple disclosure regulations, I think more women can start getting paid as much as men do for the same jobs. Companies want our resumes; let’s have theirs too — a standard “salary resume” provided to all job applicants, comparing pay for women and men at a company. Employers would be free to pay men twice what they pay women if they want. And upon checking the salary disclosure, job seekers would be free to walk away and join a competitor who pays fairly for work done by anyone.

Let’s get over it: Women who do the same work as men aren’t the problem. Employers who pay unfairly are, and let’s face what’s obvious: They do it because they can get away with it. (For a story about an employer with integrity, see “Smart Hiring: How a savvy manager finds great hires.”)

READ MORE: Why some women try to have it all: New research on ‘like mother, like daughter’

If we’re going to analyze behavior, let’s analyze employers’ underhanded behaviors — not women’s personalities, cognitive styles or biological characteristics. There is only one thing a woman should have to do to get paid as much as a man: her job.

Employers who don’t pay fairly will stop getting away with it when they’re required to tattoo their salary statistics on their foreheads — so job applicants can run to their competitors. Or more likely — since new laws aren’t likely — employers will change their errant behavior when a new generation of women just up and quits. That would be quite a news story.

Maybe then the media and the experts will stop blaming women for the gender pay gap.

(See: “A stupid interview question to ask a woman.”)

Dear Readers: Are you paid fairly for your work? If not, what’s your recourse? Do we need to fix women’s behavior or employers’? Or, will a new generation of women change it all anyway?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2016 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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