October 13, 2011 — We’ve all heard the maxim that “women don’t ask.” This view is so prevalent that an entire cottage industry has sprung up to address it. The problem is that it’s simply untrue.
Our new report, The Myth of the Ideal Worker, the latest in our series on high-potential employees, makes it clear that even when women do “all the right things” they’re unlikely to earn as much or advance as far as their male colleagues.
For example, by looking at the career paths of over 4000 MBA grads from around the world, Catalyst found that women were more likely than men to ask for a variety of skill-building experiences and to proactively seek training opportunities. And we also found that women and men negotiated for a higher level position or greater compensation during the hiring process for their current job at equal rates.
Women do ask—but get little in return. Equally skilled men advance farther and more quickly than their female peers. In fact, we found that the $4600 pay gap that starts from day one grew to more than $31,000 several years down the track—even when women asked.
The problem isn’t the women—it’s the business environment. Entrenched sexism dominates, especially in talent management systems. Women are held to different standards than men: women must prove themselves multiple times to get ahead while men are promoted on promise. And gendered language still prevails, with words like “aggressive” or “bold” baked into job descriptions to describe ideal candidates. These are words more often associated with men—and this explains why women are viewed as an imperfect fit for many top jobs.
Until problems inherent in the system are fixed, there are some tactics that our research found especially beneficial to women’s advancement. For example, women who were more proactive self-promoters were better able to advance their careers and increase their salaries, and were overall more professionally satisfied, than women who were less likely to make their achievements visible.
In other words, women who toot their own horn do get ahead—and are happier at work too.
Women can make their achievements more visible by telling managers about their accomplishments, seeking credit for a job well done, requesting additional performance feedback, and perhaps most importantly, asking for a promotion when deserved.
Doing so will help attract a sponsor—an important key to advancement. Unlike mentors, sponsors advocate for you from behind closed doors and help you climb the ladder. But to attract a sponsor, women need to be visible. And companies need to do their part too—the onus is on them to identify and develop rising talent.
Smart companies hold executives accountable for the success of female rising stars. Organizations that neglect talent management issues are at risk of lagging their competitors in attracting, developing, and retaining the best candidates to serve as their next generation of leaders. And business leaders would be well served by dumping myths that propagate stereotypes and unintentionally hold women back.
The issue isn’t that women don’t ask. Maybe it’s that men don’t have to.