Should Women Job Hunt Like Men?
By Julie Norwell
It was an interesting irony when Claudia Goldin won the Nobel prize in economics. On one hand, it was a great coup for women. Goldin is only the third woman to win the Nobel in economics and the first woman to be a solo recipient of the award. On the other hand, the research for which Goldin is lauded focuses on the deeply rooted income and labor market inequalities between men and women. Thus, while her win represents a milestone for gender equality, it also underscores the persistent challenges women face in the broader workforce.
Of course, it doesn’t take a Nobel prize to spotlight the career hurdles for women. The daily news is full of such reports. Within a week of Goldin’s award was a headline about WNBA champion, Dearica Hamby, getting traded because she was pregnant. Days later, obituaries for 1970s actress Suzanne Somers recounted her famous ffiring for demanding equal pay with her male co-star. Earlier this year, Pew Research published a sobering report entitled, “The Enduring Grip of the Gender Pay Gap.” The takeaway: The pay gap is essentially unchanged from 20 years ago.
In recent years, the challenges facing career women have drawn greater scrutiny. In addition to gender pay equity, we examine low representation in leadership roles, biases in hiring and promotions, and gender disparities, especially the “double shift” that many women face in balancing work and home responsibilities. Social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have highlighted workplace harassment, too.
Despite the increased attention, progress remains slow. Claudia Goldin argues that the solution to achieving gender equality is for our society to make fundamental changes to the way we work. But who has time to wait for that? Women need to know now how to handle roadblocks in their careers, especially during career transitions. Should women act like men at work and during a job hunt?
Unfortunately, career success is just harder for women than men, and the path is more complicated to navigate. But a closer look suggests that women are pretty darn resourceful at optimizing their opportunities on an uneven playing field. Sometimes in surprising ways.
Uneven Playing Field
First, a look at that landscape for women. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. That has increased a measly two cents from the 80 cents women made in 2002. Improvement was significant in the two decades prior to that, by contrast. Between 1982 and 2002, the gender pay gap narrowed by an impressive 17 cents.
It is unclear why pay gap progress has stalled, but it’s clear why it exists in the first place. While women enjoy parity at the start of their careers, they lose ground at the first step up to manager. Gender disparity in early promotions means 60% of men end up holding manager-level positions, while women hold just 40%. As a result, women’s paychecks suffer by comparison.
Research in McKinsey’s and LeanIn.org’s “Women in the Workplace” report shows that fewer and fewer women are in the corporate pipeline at each stage. Consequently, gender disparity continues to widen over time. It’s even worse for women of color. The problem, according to the report, is not a “glass ceiling” but a “broken rung” on the corporate ladder.
To be sure, there have been advancements for women. Today, women are represented in every field of work. Women outpace men in all university degrees earned. Women occupy more Fortune 500 chief executive positions (10.6%) and more corporate board seats (30.4%) than ever before. But equal representation in leadership and parity in wages remains well out of reach.
Notably, a majority of Americans (55%) say there are too few women in top executive business positions. So, how can women rise? One strategy is to play it like a man when circumstances call for it. For example, don’t let others talk over you. Limit the display of emotion in your interactions. And don’t be afraid to take credit for your accomplishments.
“Female clients often need more coaching to use “I” statements,” said Penny Marion, executive career consultant at The Barrett Group. “They tend to give credit to their team for achievements rather than take it themselves. I remind them, ‘You were leading the team and keeping it on task. You deserve credit for that.’”
Some women could also benefit from being more assertive.
“Ask for what you want,” say business coach Laura Browne. Browne, who is author of Increase Your Income: 7 Rules for Women Who Want to Make More Money at Work, believes that women often disadvantage themselves by failing to ask for raises or negotiate compensation.
“During a job search, women are more likely to accept the first job offer they get. Men, however, often negotiate – and receive more money at the start, as a result,” said Browne. “If both get raises at the same percentage rate, over five years, the woman will be making considerably less money.”
A recent Pew Research survey supports Browne’s observation. It found that women are less likely than men to ask for pay higher than the first offer. Asked for a reason, women will say, more often than men, that they feel uncomfortable doing so.
It’s worth noting, too, a related, more interesting Pew fact. When women did ask for higher pay, they were more likely than men to receive only what they had initially been offered. In a separate study, it was shown that, when negotiating for higher pay, women are penalized socially more than men. Viewed together, we start to see a troubling picture. Not only are women less likely to get the raises they request, they are also more likely to get penalties just for asking.
Women sometimes face consequences when they are assertive in other ways, too. In yet another study, women who displayed dominant, male-like behavior were viewed as less likeable and, therefore, less hireable. That was true even if they were otherwise viewed as intelligent and competent.
So, to recap, women risk gender disparity if they shy from requesting pay raises and promotions. But they experience social consequences when they do request them – or just act too dominant. In short, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Surprising Power of Weak Language
The surprising solution, at least for some, is weak language. Sound counterintuitive? Indeed, conventional wisdom suggests that strong and commanding speech is the language of success. But organizational psychologist Adam Grant makes a good argument that weak language (language using disclaimers (“I might be wrong, but…”), hedges (“sort of”), and tag questions (“don’t you think?”) can be a surprisingly strategic advantage to women in a work setting.
Citing multiple studies, Grant explains that women are more likely to get raises when they use weak language to ask for them. (Language style was unimportant for men in getting raises.) In fact, in general, men find women to be more persuasive, likeable, and trustworthy when they speak tentatively, rather than assertively.
Women, interestingly, find women who speak assertively to be more persuasive. So, it’s important that women be careful to adapt their communication style to their audience.
Grant isn’t the only one talking about the surprising power of women’s language. In her newly published book, linguist Valerie Fridland discusses other clever ways women leverage language to garner respect and power. Lowered voice pitch, for example.
Low voices convey strength, authority, and confidence – all qualities that count in the workplace. Low voices, naturally, give men a professional advantage. High voices, meanwhile, come across as deferential and timid. While studies show that women with high-pitched voices are considered more attractive, a high-pitched voice is a professional liability. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the average vocal pitch of women has lowered significantly since the 1940s. Margaret Thatcher famously did it in a matter of years.
“Vocal fry” is another way that women are adapting (perhaps unwittingly) to the challenges in their environment. Vocal fry is a dramatic drop in pitch at the end of a sentence in a way that makes the voice sound gravelly. Although used by both men and women, it’s more noticed – and criticized – when women use it.
Critics say it sounds unprofessional. But, Fridland argues, it is a creative way to solve the high pitch/more attractive, low pitch/more dominant conundrum that young women in the workforce face. “Using a bit of fry,” she writes, “Is a compromise between still sounding like a woman while talking like a man for career success.”
Remote Work Is a Gamechanger for Mothers
Language and assertive behavior aren’t the only ways that women are seizing opportunities where they can get them. Remote work has emerged as a gamechanger. It is enabling mothers of young children to start working in record numbers, and it could lessen the “motherhood penalty” felt by women when they begin their families.
That is encouraging news, given that the U.S. is among the few countries without a universal paid maternity leave policy. Thanks to Goldin’s research, we know now that the biggest barrier for working women is a lack of affordable, quality childcare. Though federal policy is failing women, women have found a way to help themselves.
“Women with young children are powering the pack’s upward trajectory. Their labor force participation rate is more than 1.4 percentage points above its pre-pandemic peak,” says a recent report by the Brookings Institution. It adds that prime-age women (ages 25-54) have contributed most to the post-pandemic rebound in overall labor force participation.
Whether this post-pandemic trend continues remains to be seen. Regardless, between remote work, creative language, adopting masculine traits, and so on, women are proving to be resourceful in navigating a professional landscape that is stacked against them.
It’s crucial to point out that the most important resource women have to position themselves optimally in the employment market is knowing the value they offer. That is true for men, too, of course. Sure, some women struggle with confidence. Given the hurdles women encounter in their careers, it’s easy to understand why. But, whether you are a woman or a man, speaking to your personal brand, achievements, and value proposition will enable you to confidently qualify yourself for a role. Couple that with a strong professional network, mentors, and adaptability to your circumstances, and you will see many doors open in your career.
Read next: Top Pain Points in the Job Market