Why The Gender Pay Gap Gets Worse—Not Better—For Senior Engineers

Crunching the numbers on the pay gap is a challenge.

There is enough data to observe the problem in general: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found women engineers make 83% as much as men with similar experience. But to answer more complex problems, like how women engineers' salary expectations change over time, you have to dig deeper.

We wanted to better understand how the pay gap affects women engineers' salary expectations as they advance through their careers. Does the gap between what men and women expect to be paid shrink in more senior roles? Can we isolate an experience level where the gap widens or narrows significantly?

To answer these questions, we studied our own data, analyzing the salary expectations of thousands of engineers in Silicon Valley who currently have one to eight years of experience.

For New Engineers, There Is No Expectation Gap

Engineers with zero years of experience have very similar salary expectations—in fact, women expect roughly 2% more than men at this stage. As their careers move forward, though, men expect 50% larger raises for each year of experience than women do.

The year-to-year increase is more or less consistent. Men increase their salary expectations by about $9,000 a year, while women tend to increase theirs by $6,000 per year. By the time they have eight years of professional engineering experience behind them, men have salary expectations about 15% higher than what women expect.

The trend isn't isolated to engineers in Silicon Valley, either. The numbers are similar in New York.

Why Experts Think The Gap Grows Over Time

“Women negotiate less—and ask for less when they do try to negotiate—than men, and that's due to a couple of reasons,” said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at The National Woman's Law Center.

The key reasons she cited were cultural biases, namely that “women aren't taught to negotiate and are taught to be less aggressive,” but also that “there are negative stereotypes associated with women who negotiate. They're seen as aggressive or greedy, whereas men who negotiate are seen as strong and leadership material.”

A 2018 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that while women ask for raises as often as men, women are less likely to receive them. Similarly, in 2007, a team at Harvard conducted a study in which 285 adults watched video footage of men and women candidates receiving job offers, some of whom negotiated their salaries. The participants were then asked to score how willing they would be to work with each candidate.

Researchers found when a woman negotiated her salary, participants were 29% less willing to work with her. When men negotiated, though, participants were only 7% less willing to work with him. Women were penalized more than four times as much as men for negotiating.

“When women do try to negotiate and they get negative feedback,” Raghu said, “over time that can lead them to either lowball themselves or be less likely to try to negotiate.”

How Transparent Pay Policies Can Help Bridge The Gap

Fixing the pay gap is a complicated fight. However, companies can begin to help bridge the gap in salary expectations by instituting transparent, objective formulas for calculating salaries.

Buffer, the social scheduling platform, is a well-known example of this pay policy. Its employee salaries are calculated using a publicly available formula, and as a result, there is no pay gap between men and women employees who have the same credentials and roles.

“When employers hold all of the salary information,” reads a 2018 report from The National Woman's Law Center, “they are at a significant advantage in negotiating the lowest possible salary, and women suffer most.”

Buffer's next hurdle, its leadership acknowledges, is elevating more women and minorities to high-paying roles. Because the company's early hires were mostly men, its senior positions are largely held by them. But with transparent salary practices and an emphasis on diversity, Buffer has been able to reduce its cumulative pay gap from 10.6% in 2016 to 5.7% in 2018.

For other companies eager to participate and shrink the gap in a meaningful way, one takeaway is clear: consider an open pay policy and calculate salaries in an objective, transparent way. A first step for companies—or for candidates evaluating their own role's worth—is to the determine the fair market value of a role. There are many free, online tools to help with research (we've also built one for you here).

Then, as candidates or employees begin to advance, it's important for hiring managers to document why higher salaries are being granted. When “hiring managers are required to document why they are giving people money,” Raghu said, “[we can] check for unconscious bias.” Absent that transparency, there is no reliable way of preventing unconscious bias from affecting salary negotiations.

“We wholeheartedly believe that transparent salaries do a massive amount of good,” notes Buffer's pay analysis. “If we considered what our gender pay gap would be without transparent salaries and a salary formula, we can almost guarantee it would be much larger.”

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