Even When Women Ask For a Raise They Usually Don’t Get It and We Can Change That

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously advised women to have faith in the system instead of asking for a raise. He said there’s “good karma” for women who don’t ask for a raise, because “that’s the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person I want to really give more responsibility to.” He apologized later for the comments. But taken at face value, they give us clues into the vexing puzzle of women, work and money.

Women get fewer raises than men. People typically give three reasons to explain this. Women don’t ask. They ask, but don’t assert. Or they’re blocked by discrimination against women. Just last week, Fortune covered a report affirming one of these theories. It says women are asking for raises at the same rate as men, but not getting them. They explain “that can only mean one thing…there is discrimination against women.” Well, that’s part of the story. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

Nadella told us another way to understand why women get turned down for raises when they ask. It’s because they don’t seem like “the kind of person” their boss wants to promote or reward. That begs the questions: why don’t women seem like “that kind” of person? What “kind of person” is that mystery woman whom he wants to trust and give increased responsibility? And how do we find her?

Here’s where symbols and collective storytelling come in. I’ll explain more below, but to get started, consider this. Eight years ago, the press repeatedly told us that David Plouffe was “a top campaign aide” or “senior advisor” to then-candidate Obama. Today, with equal access and influence on a Presidential nominee, Huma Abedin is described as “a long-suffering wife.”

Likewise with Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of genetic testing pioneer 23andMe. She’s breaking new ground by personalizing analysis of the human genome. Yet she’s commonly called “Google Founder Sergey Brin’s ex-wife,” with an additional “who is also a successful tech executive” tacked on at the end.

Think about the impact on recruiting, hiring, and promoting, if this represents the way we look at working men and women.

The Power of Symbols and Stories

I advise senior leaders who want to take their already high performance to the next level. My methodology reflects discoveries I’ve made about how people can transform their lives, even well into their adult years. It’s shaped as well by over 20 years of research into the collective human psyche, particularly through the works of Jean Shinoda Bolen and Joseph Campbell. Taken together, that exploration has pointed me to the stories and symbols that Bolen and Campbell call myths. These offer an explanation for the quandary of women and raises, as well as a path toward making progress.

Myth in this context refers to a shared frame of reference. It doesn’t mean a tall tale, like the myth of the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy. It’s a way of understanding things that we ingest from the culture around us. Our common myths shape the way we see people, and how we interpret the events in our lives. Even what we experience as “my truth” can get bound up with beliefs we hold based on cues from the outside world. One way to see that is to look at how our beliefs, even our values, can change dramatically if our collective story suddenly shifts.

Take SeaWorld, for example. Since the 1960s, families flocked to SeaWorld to enjoy the famed whale Shamu. Our collective myth was that Shamu was a happy whale, delighting in entertaining children, and better cared for than her less fortunate cousins in the wild.

A few years ago, the documentary film Blackfish painted a very different picture. After decades of sharing one story, the public quickly embraced an entirely different narrative. Shamu was a victim, trapped in a horrible life and traumatized by captivity. Attendance at SeaWorld plummeted. People protested and demanded change.

In short order, SeaWorld abandoned its program of breeding orcas in captivity. It announced it will stop using killer whales as “entertainment” and will focus on conservation and education instead. This dramatic reversal came about when the popular myth around Shamu changed. When the story evolves, so do the actions.

Myths of Women Are in Our Way at Work

This brings us back to the problem of women not getting raises. Seen through the lens of collective myth, we can imagine why this won’t change just because women ask more often, or assert more effectively. It will change as we evolve a set of shared symbols for “the kind of woman” who deserves a raise.

Here are some frames of reference that I’ve heard during hiring and promotion discussions. They’ll sound familiar. Consider that these images reside in the minds of both men and women who decide whether or not to give a raise.

If she’s quiet and kind, a woman doesn’t have “the fire in the belly.” If she has the fire, she’s “a handful” or “high maintenance.” If she’s short or not classically beautiful, she lacks “presence.” But tall and pretty, a “trophy wife.” If she’s feminine that’s bad, but a feminist, even worse. If she sticks to the facts she’s an “Ice Queen” but if she doesn’t she’s a “Drama Queen.” The Femme Fatale. The Girl Next Door. And on it goes.

When we hear the phrase, “The Good Wife,” we all picture a woman. But who do we picture when we hear “The Good CEO” or “The Good Boss”? What about “Brilliant Scientist,” “Leading Investment Advisor,” “Top Attorney,” or “Senior Management Consultant”?

These questions might sound outdated. But collective associations die hard, and they’re more significant than you might think. We underestimate the role that symbolic content plays in our lives. It shapes how we make decisions, like whom to promote, or give a raise. It forms the backbone of someone like Nadella’s sense of whether he will trust someone.

So What Can We Do?

We can break the pattern of women-can’t-get-raises by transforming the symbols we use of both men and women, as well as the legendary figures we embrace. That path to change involves the active choice to release old stories and learn new ones. Celebrating different icons, real people who become larger-than-life, is a concrete way to embed new myths into our hearts, minds, and decisions.

You can start with casual conversations at the office, or with discussions around the dinner table. Notice if you’re using only men to make a point, and add a woman to your list. Even in the privacy of your own mind, link iconic men and women together: think Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer, add Christiane Amanpour or Hala Gorani; think Aaron Sorkin, add Shonda Rhimes; think LeBron James, add Carli Lloyd; think Nelson Mandela, add Aung San Suu Kyi. If this sounds silly, it’s not. It matters that everyone knows the name Calvin Klein but not the name Sara Blakely. It filters all the way down from our mental points of reference to how we see the employees we might give a raise.

Here is a potpourri of examples of women who shake-up traditional categories. Starting today, learn about them and others like them. Then call them to mind. Mention them in a speech. Name them in a blog. Use them to illustrate a comment you make on a list-serv, or post a story about them on Facebook. You get the idea.

Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez: two powerhouses who also seem sweet, genuine, even innocent;

Gretchen Carlson: a former Miss America and beautiful blonde television host who graduated from Stanford University with honors and stood up for her rights and won a lawsuit against the most powerful man in her field;

Malala Yousafazi: a schoolgirl targeted by the Taliban, who survived an assassination attempt and went on to earn the Nobel Prize for her international work on education for girls and other human rights;

Demi Lovato: a celebrity child actor, singer and songwriter, who became an outspoken advocate on substance abuse and mental health issues.

Marit Bjørgen: a Norwegian cross-country skier and six time Olympic champion, who trained with the national ski team throughout her pregnancy. She gave birth in December, and with both mother and baby doing great, made a quick return to the top of her sport in February.

Tania Singer: a recognized world expert in neuroscience, whose empirical studies on neural plasticity are breaking new ground on how we understand the human brain. She presented the broader applications of her research at the World Economic Forum;

Ashley Graham: a model on the cover of Sports Illustrated, whose success broadens our appreciation of what beauty looks like in a woman;

Ellen Pao: a vocal critic of the hiring and promotion practices in Silicon Valley, Pao sued her employer for gender discrimination, bringing the issue national attention. As CEO of social media site Reddit, Pao banned the posting of revenge porn. Her decision caused an uproar among users of the site, yet other social networks soon followed her policy.

The list goes on of women who break the mold. Lifting up new icons and telling their stories alongside those of men may seem like an indirect way of changing the way women get paid at work. But the shift we need is to the underlying mindsets that look for a certain “kind of person.” As we drop old lenses and reinforce new ones, we’ll change the way we all see men and women. Then giving out raises, bonuses, executive roles and corner offices will all follow naturally.

Erica Ariel Fox

About Erica Ariel Fox

Erica Ariel Fox is pioneering the discipline of Creative Human Disruption with her books Winning From Within and the upcoming Lead Yourself First. She teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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