Are Women Asking Too Little or Men Asking Too Much?

It seems we have a long way to go when it comes to gender equity on the job. A recent Canadian study found that women entering the workforce have have much lower career expectations than men. In fact, women anticipate both smaller paychecks and longer waits for promotions.

The study found that women predict their starting salaries to be 14 percent less than what men forecast. This gap in wage expectations widens over their careers with women anticipating their earnings to be 18 percent less than men after five years on the job. As for their first promotion, the study found that women expect to wait close to two months longer than men for their first step up the corporate ladder.

"It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg-situation," says business professor Sean Lyons of the University of Guelph. "Women know that they currently aren't earning as much as men, so they enter the workforce with that expectation. Because they don't expect to earn as much, they likely aren't as aggressive when it comes to negotiating salaries or pay raises and will accept lower-paying jobs than men, which perpetuates the existing inequalities."

Reasonable Expectations

But that's only half the story. It isn't just that young women's expectations are too low, but that young men's expectation are too high. "Overall we found the male students' expectations are way too high," says Lyons. "These results may indicate that women are just more realistic about their salary expectations."

It's not surprising that gender gaps in salary expectation and career advancement were widest among students planning to enter male-dominated fields such as science and engineering. They were narrowest for those preparing for female-dominated or neutral fields such as arts and science.

Another factor influencing women's lower career expectations could be that the genders often have differences in career priorities, according to Lyons. The study found that women were more likely to choose balancing their personal life with their careers and contributing to society as top career priorities. But men stated priorities associated with higher salaries, such as career advancement and building a sound financial base.

Is It a Matter of Priorities?

"It may be that women expect to trade off higher salaries for preferences in lifestyle," says Lyons. Could it be that women are, consciously or subconsciously, clinging to the notion that they will eventually be childcare givers who will team up with a major breadwinner? Or perhaps it's just that society is more likely to judge men in terms of their salaries, but not so much with women.

And Lyon suspects yet another reason for women's reduced expectations: Younger women's attitudes reflect the the career information they're getting from older, more experienced working women. "If these students are asking their mothers or other older women for their experiences, they will be getting a reflection of the historical inequality."

When it comes to self confidence and self-efficacy, however, the study found that women and men are at the exact same levels. "Our study shows women don't feel inferior to men and view themselves as every bit as capable as their male counterparts," Lyon adds.

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