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Women, money and shame: ‘When women earn money, it’s seen as pocket money’

By April 16, 2021April 17th, 2021No Comments

Linnea Dunne looks at why a woman asserting herself is viewed negatively, and how to talk about what we earn…


Ever heard that old chestnut about women being terrible negotiators? I’m sure we all have, and yet Hannah Riley Bowles, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, who has written a lot about gender and negotiation, argues that it’s not the full truth. So why then, as I’ve  written here previously, do women and money make such an awkward pair? And why do we still have a 14% gender pay gap in Ireland?

“The gender pay gap in Ireland is based on several factors, including occupational segregation – that the jobs women tend to do are paid less – but it also widens at different points along the professional and occupational spectrum,” says Dr. Lauren Bari, adjunct lecturer in Human Resource Management at Cork University Business School, UCC. “For example, it’s well-known to be wider in jobs that involve bonuses and in particular sectors such as finance and law.”

This is not unique for Ireland, according to Dr. Bowles, who talks a lot about transparency. “You’re less likely to find discriminations in pay in salaries than in, say, bonuses or other special payment arrangements. It’s in places where ambiguity seeps into the system,” she explains.

The social cost of self-advocating

But let’s backtrack a little and return to that notion of women as terrible negotiators. Because it has to come from somewhere, right? “We’ve done numerous studies looking at a person attempting to negotiate and the difference in how candidates are evaluated, and we’ve found that there’s a greater negative social cost for women than for men,” says Dr. Bowles. “There’s a pattern of social resistance, of backlash – this sense that, do I really want to work with her after she self-advocates for higher pay? Women intuit this, and they hold back because they’re reasonably interpreting the situation as more tricky.” 

But where do these ideas come from, and why are people more likely to react negatively to a female colleague asking for a raise? 

“Historically, feminine ideals and women’s labour were not associated with pay,” Dr. Bowles reflects. “The ideal woman is working in the home doing unpaid labour or volunteer work. When men self-advocate, they’re making themselves better providers. It’s not even really about them, it’s about the notion of the male breadwinner. Research shows that people don’t find women nice when they are asserting themselves, but more than that, women appear more materialistic and immodest – because when women earn money, it’s seen as pocket money, like it’s just for going to the mall.” 

Interestingly, she says, women fared significantly better in studies when sent in to negotiate for someone else rather than for themselves. “We don’t like it when women are assertive in advocating for themselves; we like them better when they’re more gentle and meek. When they’re advocating for others, however, people say ‘oh, she should be more assertive’. It’s not about personality – it’s about gender. We want them to be assertive on behalf of others.”

‘Talk to men’

Annie Ridout, a British freelance journalist, author, entrepreneur and business coach, may have just published a book called Shy, but meek she is not. In fact, she has been exceptionally vocal about her financial goals and earnings on Instagram and elsewhere, outlining how she set a goal of earning £100,000 a year – and reached it. Occasionally, she’ll share a post about a client disagreement, explaining how she chose to walk away from a collaboration where she wasn’t valued – and she encourages others to, where possible, do the same.

“I saw other women starting to open up about what they were earning, and when they were earning good money, I started asking myself, hold on, why am I setting my day rate so low? I needed other women to be transparent to know where to place my own services,” she says, adding that she quickly realised that men tend to ask for much more. “There’s this feeling that we should all be secretive about what we earn, but that creates shame about the idea that you should want to earn a good living as a woman and a mother. Talking shows what’s possible.”

Asked why she thinks it is that women tend to set their rates lower than men, she doesn’t hesitate for a second. “They don’t know what men are charging. They speak to female peers to get an idea of what they’re charging, but they should be speaking to men,” she says. “We’re made to feel that we should be nurturers and carers, not earners. For men, success and power are about money. For women, success is about being a mother, being kind – we’re not told that we should strive to earn a good living.”

One good piece of advice Ridout wants to pass on came from life and business coach Rebecca Caution, who suggested to decide how much you want to earn in a year and divide it by the amount of weeks you want to work and the amount of hours you have to work each week, and then base your hourly rate on that. “That feels quite bold, but I think it’s a sensible way to work. Otherwise, if you don’t have more hours, then you’re not going to earn enough,” she says, adding that organisations need to step up too.

“If you’re hiring freelancers, pay women what you’re paying men. Even more so with full-time employees, there’s just no excuse not to be paying women and men the same. And if a woman underquotes in an interview, tell her. That’s such a solid beginning of a relationship with that woman – she’s going to be so much more committed than someone who’s paid less and finds out. It’s about mutual trust and respect.”

Individual and structural transparency

Dr. Bowles’ academic research and Ridout’s lived experience appear to be pointing to a similar conclusion: that it’s all about transparency. I want to ask Dr. Bowles about how to shift to a transparency mindset, and about her best advice for women who are struggling with feelings of shame around naming their value, but when I preface my question with a disclaimer that I’m not exactly a fan of the Lean In approach, she interrupts me. 

“There’s a caricature of the Lean In approach that it’s just saying that women are holding back and if we just fix them that solves the problem. And of course that’s problematic, because it’s got much more to do with occupational attainment and the division of household labour. But the problem with caricaturing the Lean In message entirely is that you throw the baby out with the bath water. In swinging it over and saying it’s the responsibility of organisations and governments to fix the systems, there’s this patriarchal notion that somehow the system will get fixed from above, and then women and other underrepresented groups will be liberated. It drives me a little bit crazy,” she says.

The approach Dr Bowles’ came up with, based on her own research and indeed inspired by early drafts of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book, is all about taking the other side’s perspective to explain why what you’re asking for is legitimate. She calls it the I-We strategy, and studies prove that it works. 

“You shouldn’t do this if it makes you feel inauthentic – that price is not worth paying. But it’s just generally good negotiating advice, and it reduces the social cost. It’s not about being apologetic and obsequious – the I-We stuff is still done in a very strong voice. The reality is that most of us actually want to take others into account, so I think it’s a positive and empowering place to be.”

As she keenly points out, it’s not one thing or the other. “We need to do both,” she insists, suggesting that while policies that address existing micro-level barriers won’t fix things overnight, they tend to remove some of that ambiguity and force organisations to have deeper conversations about these things. 

“We can’t put the blame on women, but we should be enhancing their agency and supporting people to self-advocate. Negotiation is also a skill women use to shape organisations as they rise through the hierarchies where there have previously been no women; women use these skills to renegotiate expectations, renegotiate traditional career paths. How do you support women in their negotiations and support system change as well as put pressure on corporations and governments?” 

Whether you’re an idealist or a pragmatist, there’s a ways to go in addressing these layers of structural gender inequality. But perhaps there are at least glimmers of hope on the horizon. “It’s connected to other factors such as working time and promotion being predicated on a long-hours work culture and so on – but this may change as a result of the pandemic and the way in which flexibility is becoming more normalised, required and expected,” Dr. Bari says about the existing inequalities in the traditional sectors.

As for Ireland specifically, she adds: “I don’t think Irish people are particularly confident generally, nor do we tend to be comfortable talking about money. Then from a gender angle, I think there is a cultural aspect where women are not to be seen to be too confident or to have ‘notions’ about themselves. I do see this changing though.”


Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash