Last Wednesday, the American Association of University Women reported that women in their first year out of college are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers -- creating a heavier college debt burden and lifelong wage gap at a time when women are increasingly the primary breadwinners of their households.
The cause of that gap? Most experts would say old-fashioned discrimination, or perhaps young women's tendency to major in "soft" subjects like English or Art History. But we think there's something they're missing: a psychological glass ceiling -- the barrier created by a thick layer of internalized cultural messages -- that causes women to hold themselves back.
The psychological glass ceiling begins to form when young women, fresh out of college, attempt to negotiate their first salaries. They balk at asking for more money and are discouraged when they hear the word "no." Despite resumes that overflow with stellar grades and accomplishments -- women make up the majority of college grads and Ph.D.s -- those achievements mean nothing if women are too afraid to ask for what they deserve. In many cases, young women still face the crippling burden of always having to come off as modest and likable. Don't be too firm. Ask, but ask nicely.
At Smith College, where we work with undergraduate women, we see the weight of this burden in and out of the classroom. One student confessed to editing and re-editing her class comments "a thousand times" in her head to ensure she didn't irritate professors or peers (then deciding not to speak up at all). Others struggle with even the simplest confrontations -- something as benign as asking a messy roommate to clean up after herself or offering an alternative strategy on a sports team. For these students, what starts out as a dirty dish in the shared sink that they shirk from confronting becomes the salary they don't negotiate.
The roots of this problem likely begin in childhood, as girls become aware of persistent gender expectations. A 2006 study by Girls Inc. found that 74% of girls felt they were under pressure to please everyone. Two years later, a survey by the Girl Scouts revealed that girls aged 8-17 were worried that leadership positions would make them seem "bossy" and lead to negative attention from peers.
By college, the damage is done. Last year, Princeton discovered its female undergraduates were more likely to "undersell themselves" while men "might stress their accomplishments." Even at Google, as part of the company's efforts to recruit and retain female talent, executives determined that female applicants neglected to talk up their talents, and that many employees were reluctant to nominate themselves for promotions.
The problem, of course, is that when women do speak up, the old double standard kicks in. In a study by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon, men and women asked for a raise using identical scripts. It was the women who were branded aggressive -- unless they smiled while they asked, and appeared warm and concerned for others above themselves.
So how do we solve the problem? For starters, undergraduate institutions should teach women to navigate society's mixed messages, to advocate for themselves and to take risks.
At Smith, the Wurtele Center for Work & Life develops programs for students who want to gain confidence in speaking up, and who report that direct instruction has a powerful effect. In a four-week series called "Leadership for Rebels," we teach students to practice self-awareness and assertive communication, using their everyday interactions as a kind of leadership classroom where they can practice new skills. A student might work up the courage, for example, to tell her roommate she's playing the music too loud and too late, and suggest a mutually agreeable plan. Participants understand that they're building the muscles to ask for what they want later when the stakes are higher. The confidence needed to initiate difficult conversations with roommates is the same moxie they'll need at work, when they want to ask for a promotion or raise.
Another workshop, a collaboration with several faculty members, tears the wrapping off of the "perfect student" package that many students feel they need to present. "Speaking Up in Class" pushes students to resist ruminating, to voice even "half-formed thoughts" and to approach faculty members often. "Meeting with my professor was really hard, because I felt self-conscious and shy," says Catlin, a first year student at Smith. After attending a two-hour session this past September, she says she had "more confidence to both ask for help and just speak up when I have something to say."
When students attempt these kinds of "really hard" interactions, they are practicing crucial skills for self-advocacy in the workplace. Our students report that when they start to take risks, they see positive results almost immediately. "I was terrified to speak in a large lecture setting," said Janelle, another student, "but now I have raised my hand and spoken up twice. The second time was fifty percent less stressful than the first."
The AAUW is funding programs that teach female undergraduates to negotiate, but colleges and universities can do more to prepare women for work. They should focus on equipping women with the skills to communicate confidently both at college and in the workplace -- and to ask for their fair share.
Rachel Simmons is the author of "Odd Girl Out" and "The Curse of the Good Girl" and the cofounder of the Girls Leadership Institute. Jessica Bacal is the Director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College.