Do you know about the Secret Pay Gap?
There's a new television commercial for Secret® deodorant featuring Lucy, a twenty-something employee in a women's restroom rehearsing how to ask her boss for a raise. She's clearly rattled, but receives advice to "do it" from an older female coworker and - according to the end of the commercial - "at 3 PM Lucy does her part to close the pay gap":
(If you can't see the embedded video, you can watch it here)
I get what the commercial is trying to say, but I think they went about it the wrong way. They missed an opportunity to not only educate people about their product, but about the larger social issue of pay inequality. I see two main problems with this commercial that reflect some common stereotypes and misconceptions about the gender pay gap. You may see other things they could have handled differently, but these are my big two:
1. Women can't negotiate well. Negotiation is often given as an underlying reason for the gender pay gap. Numerous studies have shown that women are far less likely to engage in compensation negotiations than their male counterparts. Estimates range from being one-third to as much as only one-sixteenth as likely to negotiate.
Why is this? According to Hannah Bowles, it has more to do with how women are perceived when they negotiate, not with general confidence or negotiation skills. Bowles notes that there is a social cost of negotiating paid by women than does not significantly affect men. Women are more reluctant to negotiate because they are accurately reading the social environment. "Women get a nervous feeling about negotiating for higher pay because they are intuiting - correctly - that self-advocating for higher pay would present a socially difficult situation for them - more so than men," according to Bowles.
The question then becomes how to overcome this social cost. Using a "relational account" approach can be very effective. This "I-We" approach involves pursuing a strategy of asking for what you want while signaling to your negotiating counterpart that you are also taking their perspective. This can be done by explaining to your counterpart why - in their eyes - it is legitimate for you to be negotiating. Second, you want to signal to your negotiating counterpart that you care about organizational relationships. (See Bowles's article for a discussion of how Sheryl Sandberg used this strategy in her negotiations with Facebook.)
The commercial opens with Lucy saying "Mr. Kendall... I need to ask you a favor." This is a sure-fire way of sending the signal that it is not legitimate for you to be negotiating. A raise is not a favor - it's a reward that is earned based on past performance. Lucy doesn't do much better when she says that she worked on the Padstow Team and "we won the business... I mean, just helped?" Downplaying her contributions (assuming she did do more than "just help") is certainly not going to demonstrate the legitimacy of her negotiation. Her attempt at a 'casual' approach isn't any better. Starting off a conversation with your "Bobby... you're looking great - that tie is super sick" sets the wrong tone for a supervisor / subordinate negotiation.
If I were Lucy and I didn't have a solid negotiating strategy, I would be rattled too. It's a shame that the commercial showed this young woman as being unprepared and grasping at straws, rather than rehearsing a well-articulated "I-We" argument outlining how she has contributed to the organization and why her performance warrants a raise.
2. Equitable means equal. Toward the end of the commercial, we see that one of Lucy's primary arguments for a raise is another employee's compensation: "Todd makes more than I do and he's only worked here two years." This is an effective argument only if seniority is the sole determining factor of compensation. Given the nature of the modern work environment, it is extremely unlikely that this is the case.
I raised the issue of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for pay differentials by gender back in 2010, and six years later we are still talking about it. The fact that Lucy has more seniority at this organization than Todd, in in many respects, is totally irrelevant. Does Todd have a different job function than Lucy? Does his job entail more organizational responsibility? Do they work in the same lines of business within the organization? What educational differences exist between Todd and Lucy? Who has more relevant labor market experience? Are there differences in the hours worked by Todd and by Lucy? Is it the case that their salaries are different, but their total compensation packages are the same? I won't belabor the point since I have written extensively about the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for pay differentials by gender. In short, if there are legitimate reasons why Todd earns more, then Todd should earn more. Equitable is not the same thing as equal.
I recognize it's just a commercial, and I'm not trying to jump on the "anti-media bandwagon." I do think that this was a missed opportunity. Had the commercial shown Lucy as a prepared, yet still nervous, negotiator with more of an argument than "Todd makes more than I do," P&G could have advertised their product and done their part to close the pay gap...
Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Cornell University and the Program Director for the Institute for Compensation Studies (ICS) at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Throughout her career, Stephanie has completed research on a variety of topics including wage determination, pay gaps and inequality, and performance-based compensation systems. She frequently provides expert commentary in a media outlets such as The New York Times, CBC, and NPR, and has published papers in a variety of journals.