Imagine this scenario: After diligently working in your job for a few years, your boss offers you a promotion. Thrilled by the opportunity to take on more responsibility and a higher profile, you are about to leap across the table to shake hands when you realize this move would come without a salary increase.
Does your decision on whether to negotiate a raise have anything to do with your gender?
It appears to be an accepted belief that women are poor negotiators. Countless numbers of self-help books argue that women need to improve their negotiating skills. There is nothing in our genetic makeup that makes this so, but traditional social norms leave many women uncomfortable with the concept, playing into that stereotype and perpetuating the wage gap.
A recent study out of Columbia Business School found that women consistently negotiate in line with gender expectations. This means they do well bargaining on the behalf of others, because it's perceived as caring, but not for their own benefit.
When women attempted to self-advocate, they conceded nearly 20 per cent of the total value of their salary in the first round of negotiations – a much larger concession than male negotiators or women negotiating for others.
"It's not nearly as socially acceptable for women to be assertive and say what they want," explains Lynn Harris, who runs an executive development practice in Montreal and is the author of Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading in Today's Organizations.
Ms. Harris explains that sometimes she is hired by a company to coach specific women but it's "actually their boss who needs coaching, since they are just being clear and assertive about what they want."
Women aren't the only ones playing by traditional social rules. Hannah Riley Bowles, an associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, found that men were significantly more likely to want to work with a woman who accepted her compensation without comment. Those who tried to negotiate a higher salary were perceived as overly demanding.
Women have a lot to lose by not being demanding. For example, female MBA graduates earn on average $4,600 less than male counterparts in their first job after graduating, even after taking into account their experience, industry and region, a 2010 global survey by Catalyst found.
That misstep compounds over the span of their careers. In a study cited by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Women Don't Ask, an individual can lose more than $500,000 by age 60 by not negotiating a first salary.
"You can't worry about how you are being seen. You just have to decide that you're not going to under-price yourself as a woman, and you have to ask," advises Vickie Milazzo, author of Wicked Success is Inside Every Woman. "You can't wait for someone else to take care of you."
"You always need to negotiate from a place of strength," adds Ms. Milazzo, suggesting that a successful negotiator needs to demonstrate how her expertise will benefit her employer. If you are accepting a role that involves more work and saves the company money, or helps it generate more revenue, you need to illustrate that while you negotiate.
"Women need to be careful that they are not just being flattered by the idea of the promotion. It's not much of a promotion if there is no pay attached."
Ms. Milazzo also warns women against "holding back" in a job where they are unhappy with a supervisor, since a lacklustre performance can only backfire: It is the employees who volunteer to do the extras who will stand out and get pay raises.
Ms. Harris advises job applicants to know the going rate before accepting a position and benchmark the pay offer against other companies. And when the time comes to negotiate, she says, women need to promote themselves any way they feel comfortable.
"Don't think you have to do it like the men do it. You can still do it in a way that feels okay and is line with your values."
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: email@example.com