NEW YORK -- Casey Ferguson was sitting in her car on Jan. 19 when she finally got the call she'd waited months to receive.
On the line was Jon Newman, the founder of the Hodges Partnership, a strategic communications firm in Richmond, Va., where she had recently interviewed.
He was calling to offer her an entry-level position.
Ferguson, a 22-year-old who graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in communications from East Carolina University, began her job search in the summer of 2009, when she worked as a summer intern at Hodges. After the internship was over, she began a protracted courting ritual: staying in touch with former colleagues through social networks and meeting up with ex-coworkers for lunch or coffee. She even brought homemade cookies by the office on more than one occasion.
But when she heard the word "offer," all of the lessons that had been drilled into her during college career fairs -- namely, that she could and absolutely should negotiate -- went flying out the window.
Even before Newman could finish explaining the full terms, Ferguson interrupted him to say that she accepted.
"After I said 'yes,' my boss immediately started laughing. He told me my first task was to enroll in Negotiating 101," recalls Ferguson.
It wasn't that she didn't care about the money. The daughter of an elementary school teacher and a South Carolina cable company employee, Ferguson put herself through college by working a series of part-time jobs and taking out student loans, on which she still owes more than $15,000.
"Thinking of all my friends who have graduated and still don't have jobs, why would I get greedy?” she says. "It's just not in my nature to nickel and dime."
Ferguson is hardly alone in her discomfort with playing hardball -- especially among other women, and especially during a recession.
Even during the most robust of economic times, women are less inclined to negotiate. In fact, according to Sara Laschever, co-author of "Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide," 20 percent of women say they never negotiate at all. And in the current recession, which has made many job seekers feel grateful for any work they can find, even a part-time toehold can feel like a victory.
Based on several interviews with women under the age of 30, nearly all reported feeling almost guilty about asking for more money than was initially being offered.
The problem with this reluctance to ask for more is that women are still paid less than men. And as new research released last month reveals, young women often get the raw end of the deal.
A May study by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University polled nearly 600 young men and women who graduated from college between 2006 and 2010. The authors found that young men are not only out-earning young women, they're doing so by an average of more than $5,000 per year. Male participants reported first-year job earnings averaging $33,150, while young women earned about $28,000.
Another report released in May, this one by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, indicated that new female college graduates are earning 17 percent less than their male counterparts.
The National Partnership for Women & Families reports that, among full-time workers in the population as a whole, women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make.
"Historically, men out-earn women across all sorts of occupations," says Carl E. Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers and a co-author of the study. "All of our data confirms that's still going on with young people who have graduated from college in the last five years. I'm just disappointed that the disparity is still so large."
The danger of the situation is that, when a woman begins her career by earning less money, it's hard to ever catch up.
WHY THE EARLY WAGE GAP?
In past years, many scholars have blamed the overall gender wage gap on historic pay inequalities still affecting older women making less than their male peers. It was hoped that once those women exited the workforce, the gap might narrow. But last month's findings show that not to be the case.
There are data to suggest that the gender gap in first-year earnings -- and often, as a result, lifelong earnings -- is a consequence of women choosing less lucrative fields than men.
A study released in May by Anthony P. Carnevale, who directs the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, suggests that women are self-selecting lower-paying professions by choosing college majors that simply don't pay much.
Utilizing previously unreported data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey, Carnevale and his co-authors sampled 3 million college graduates between the ages of 25 and 64 who supplied their majors and subsequent earnings.
"For women, in only three of the 171 majors -- physiology, information science and visual and performing arts -- did they out-earn their male counterparts," says Carnevale. And though women attend college in greater numbers than men and subsequently out-graduate them, the highest earning majors are dominated by men.
According to the study, petroleum engineering majors, for instance, are 100 percent male-dominated, whereas women account for 97 percent of early childhood education majors. (Carnevale reports a sampling error of 3 percent.)
The average petroleum engineer's yearly salary is around $120,000. The average preschool teacher makes about $35,000.
Even Carnevale, who has studied this issue for decades, was surprised by the degree to which women and men were separated according to fields of interest and subsequent earning potential.
But the wage gap exists even between men and women in the same field, which suggests that women's reluctance to negotiate may be to blame.
In addition to the recent studies by Van Horn and Carnevale, Sara Laschever, who along with Linda Babcock also co-authored "Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want" found that men not only negotiate for more money out of the gate, but they also ask to be promoted with far greater frequency. In general, men ask for things for themselves four times more frequently than women do.
Some young women may think they don't need to negotiate. All too frequently, says Laschever, they mistakenly believe that gender-based wage inequality is a problem a previous generation already conquered -- and that it couldn't possibly still be an issue.
"Women in their twenties tend to think that the gender wars have been fought and won, and that they go after what they want just as much as their male peers do," she says.
Instead, Laschever finds, young women regularly set lower salary targets for themselves than men do, and there's a direct correlation between what they aim for and what they get. "Because men aim so much higher, they come away with a lot more.”
Despite its obvious advantages, many women still fear even the idea of negotiation, says Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, a company that empowers women to stipulate equal pay. She finds especially infuriating the notion that the economy is preventing many young women from deigning to enter those back rooms and demand equal pay.
"The economy shouldn't be an excuse," says Pynchon. "I ask every woman I meet, 'When's the last time you asked for a raise?' The answer is '2007,' or 'never,' or 'because of the economy' -- it's just an excuse."
"DON'T GET OUT UNTIL YOU'RE OUT"
Even in a bad economy, men will still ask for more, says Pynchon. She encourages women to find out what their jobs are worth by going on the web, researching salary sites and talking to anyone they can -- just so long as it's a mixture of women and men.
"Don't just talk to your girl friends," says Hannah Riley Bowles, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who studies the psychology of women and work. "Talk to your guy friends."
One big reason Bowles sees women going into different careers from men is that they still assume the overwhelming responsibility of household and childcare duties. She sees a lot of young women falling into the trap of negotiating their first few jobs based on their future selves -- especially when they have yet to meet the partner they'll someday marry.
"They cut themselves out of certain types of jobs, assuming it will be incompatible with a stage of life when they’re assuming larger pressures and responsibilities," explains Bowles, echoing the message of the oft-cited wisdom of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg.
"Don't get out until you're out," is Sandberg's advice to women.
"Essentially, don't negotiate away your career potential before you've even met the person. Because who knows what's going to happen," cautions Bowles. "And don't assume a traditional division of labor, because -- in the future -- there will likely be different ways of doing things, and your paycheck may to be a vital one."
But underselling one's self can be a difficult habit to break. Mika Brzezinkski, the co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and the author of "Knowing Your Value," says that, once a woman becomes accustomed to asking for less -- or, as is more commonly the case, not asking at all -- it can be a difficult, if not impossible, to change course midstream.
"This shows the challenge that I think women all across the board face in wanting to strike the right balance. They don't want to come off as too strong or be perceived as a bitch," especially in a first job, Brzezinkski says to HuffPost while multi-tasking during her daily jog. "Our nature is very different, and we have this weird concept where -- maybe if we do the work first, we'll be rewarded later. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way."
First job negotiations, Brzezinkski cautions, can be especially difficult to navigate, mostly because a young woman hasn't yet proven herself, thus her bargaining power is low. But she blames the employers rather than the employees for the higher sums they are willing to invest in male workers.
"The question is: How do we break the pattern?" she asks. "We stop to have kids, we get married, we have choices that we make along the way, and within that a pattern establishes itself where feeling grateful starts to seep into your whole being -- the way you carry yourself, the way you articulate what you want and the way you negotiate for yourself."
Brzezinkski encourages women to play hardball for everything, but for their "very, very first job," she advises recent graduates to arm themselves with knowledge -- maybe even a copy of the recent Rutgers study that shows they're making $5,000 less than young men.
"Don't go into [the offer negotiation] angry, go into it knowing it's a gap that you'll need to fix in the next few years," she says. "The chips are still stacked against us. You're not getting paid what you're worth. And in the next negotiation, be sure to ask for more."
NEGOTIATING THE NEXT STEP: A RAISE
Two weeks after receiving her offer, Ferguson relocated to Richmond, Va., to start work and begin her professional life.
Her choices up to this point reflect much of what the research on young women's career choices has shown. In addition to Ferguson's discomfort negotiating her starting salary, she chose her major and career path based more on her happiness than on the size of her future paychecks.
Ferguson may someday make the $59,150 that is the average salary of public relations specialists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that amount that doesn't come close to the $80,000 average for mechanical or chemical engineers -- both fields that skew overwhelmingly male.
And like many of her classmates, Ferguson began her new job with thousands of dollars in loan payments still ahead of her.
While she's only five months in -- following Brzezinkski's logic -- Ferguson should be thinking about how she's going to negotiate a salary increase that puts her on par with her male peers.
Yet when it comes to idea of asking for a raise in the future, she bristles at the possibility. "Negotiating just not on the forefront of my radar right now," says Ferguson, who is careful to avoid appearing too aggressive or too pushy.
"It's honestly just not even something I've thought about."
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