Colleges Train Students to Press for Equal Wages

A new crop of programs for college women aims to teach young women negotiating skills so they start out on an even playing field with men. Otherwise, even a small difference in first-job salary could dramatically reduce lifetime earnings.

Suzanna Rose

(WOMENSENEWS)-A young woman recently came to see Meredith Knight at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The student was planning on changing her major from engineering to science. Knight reminded the student that the switch would likely have an economic impact.

“I told her, as an engineer, you'll have a lot of bargaining power,” said Knight, college coordinator of the Women in Science and Engineering program. “Companies are looking to diversify. You'll have a chance to negotiate for the compensation that you're worth.”

The student decided to make the switch to science anyway.

Her response to Knight's point was: “I don't really care what I make.”

“It's a non-concern for many women because of the way they are socialized,” said Knight. “They've been taught to be less aggressive than men. And some women feel guilty asking for more money.”

That lack of interest may be one of the reasons for the continuing wage gap between men and women. To close that gap, some colleges are offering workshops on wage negotiation and financial independence, on the theory that if women negotiate equal salaries at the start of their careers, they will have a better chance at maintaining pay equity throughout their lives.

To prepare women to maximize their savvy about personal finances, last fall Smith College began offering noncredit evening and weekend courses on money management for its female students, including a section on wage negotiation. The classes are also available to students at the University of Massachusetts colleges Mount Holyoke, Amherst and Hampshire. Future plans involve Smith students speaking at local community centers and public schools about financial independence.

Another major factor in this persisting pay gap, said Knight and others experts, is that women fail to negotiate equal salaries at the beginning of their careers and, as the years go by, women never catch up. What starts out as a small difference in salary-say $1,000 annually-adds up over a lifetime. Over a period of 40 years, given 3.5 percent yearly raises, that $1,000 difference results in a loss of $84,550 for the woman. However, the failure to press for a better starting wage may not explain the differences in compensation. A 1991 study of graduates with master's degrees in business-where both men and women showed the same tendency to initiate salary negotiations-indicated that men received $742 more than women on average for their efforts.

Women who worked full-time, year-round in 2000 earned just 73 percent of what men who also worked full-time, year-round earned, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The wage gap has narrowed by about 10 percentage points during the last 17 years, with only slight improvements in the most recent years.

Two laws address wage discrimination. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits unequal pay for equal or “substantially equal” work performed by men and women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin. However, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, wage discrimination laws are poorly enforced and cases are extremely difficult to prove and win.

Addressing the Problem Before Women Enter the Workforce

“Most women have not been socialized to be aggressive, especially when it come to pay,” Dr. Suzanna Rose, director of the Florida International University Women's Studies Center. “Often they don't think in terms of negotiation when they are interviewing. That can have long-term consequences.”

Another reason some give to explain the wage gap is that women tend to value their work less than men do. An academic study from the 1980s had male and female undergraduates work alone on the same task for an hour and asked them to compensate themselves based on what they thought their work was worth. On average, the male students paid themselves $3 while female students paid themselves $2. This trend can be exacerbated when women compare themselves to other women in the workplace, who are already making less.

“What you expect to get affects what you're likely to get. Women tend to expect less,” said Rose. In an effort to encourage women to insist on better wages, she holds workshops on wage negotiation for undergraduates at her university and for female faculty across the country. She focuses on making women more active in the negotiation process, such as learning how to phrase answers to questions about salary expectations.

Her specialty is helping female faculty seeking new or better academic jobs. She cites National Center for Education Statistics research that indicates that women faculty members are paid about 20 percent less than their male counterparts-nearly $10,000 less per year.

At Stony Brook, Knight starts even younger, working with undergraduate students to negotiate better salaries at the start of their careers. Women majoring in science and engineering at the university are part of a program that includes a class of interviewing skills and wage negotiation.

The students learn resume preparation, business etiquette and other professional skills. Program organizers hope the class will provide young women with information and skills that they didn't have before.

“The more you know how to negotiate, the better,” said Knight. “There was a time when that was learned in the ‘old boys' network.' Women didn't have that opportunity. We're trying to teach that skill and change the gap.”

Women Express More Interest in Money Matters

Mahnaz Mahdavi, director of the Women and Independence, the Smith College Program in Financial Education, said her program began in response to research showing that, while women consider financial security to be a top priority, most feel that they do not have the knowledge to address financial matters. Smith officials hope that the classes, along with a student investment club and a resource center full of financial data, will make a difference.

“For too long women have been told not to worry about money, that ‘someone else will take care of all that,'” said Mahdavi. “The reality is that you are not truly independent until and unless you are financially independent. Financial matters are not something to be left to others.”

Karin Mack, director of the Center for Engineering Professionalism at the University of California, Davis, works with students who have taken an interest in their future wages. With the demand for more women engineers, her male and female engineering students tend to receive similar offers upon graduation.

“They were mainstreamed early in life,” said Mack. “They may not realize there are gender issues. The inequities are different. Women are thinking that they can do it all.”

Mack's program holds workshops, which include lessons on salary negotiation, for male and female students. Female-only retreats and workshops are held to help students recognize different issues, such as how to raise a family and have a career.

“Money is a big deal for these students whether they're men or women,” said Mack. “They're paying attention to salary.”

If that trend continues, some believe the wage gap could close.

“The training needs to happen early,” said Rose. “Negotiation is a long-term strategy. Women need to know how to negotiate as they begin their careers. It's the way to make change.”

Kimberly Wilmot Voss has been a journalist for the past decade. She is a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

For more information:

National Committee on Pay Equity:

Equal Rights Advocates:

9to5, National Association of Working Women: