This week the BBC revealed a shocking difference between the earnings of top male and female presenters, with two thirds of top earners being men. The backlash from female TV personalities has begun, according to the Telegraph, “with one well-known name saying the corporation is stuffed with “male ‘intellectual titans’ with egos the size of planets” who have demanded huge salaries and got them.” 

And that’s just it. We all know, if you don’t ask you don’t get. And men not only ask – they demand. 

After all it seems unlikely that women aren’t capable of presenting a program, reading the news, or pontificating about politics every bit as well as men. And so one explanation as to why top men get paid so much more by the BBC than their female colleagues is likely to be that while men aren’t backwards in coming forwards when it comes to seeking huge salaries, women are more reticent about asking for what they want and deserve. 

Women’s lack of confidence in negotiations is well documented, with one oft-cited piece of research showing for instance, that while men tend to be confident enough to apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, women apply only if they meet 100% of them, and this difference has nothing to do with actual ability. But why, when women have the skills and talents, can’t they be confident about demanding the same remuneration as men? 

It seems to come down to perceived gender roles and the concern many women feel about the social price to be paid for violating these. This fear can lead to a conflict for women, between their professional and gender identities. That is, where we perceive that if we try to behave effectively in a professional capacity, particularly when it comes to male stereotypical tasks, we are concerned that there will be a social backlash if we’re not appearing feminine enough, and that our careers will suffer as a result. And they do. 

In the context of the workplace, this backlash can lead to biased hiring and professional opportunities and unequal pay, when people get the idea, consciously or not, that a woman’s behaviour is violating the traditional female norm. 

This phenomenon is embodied by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. Many of us will have issues about May’s performance as the country’s leader, but some of her unpopularity is likely linked to the fact that she seems to lack that very female-stereotypical quality of empathy. Would a male Prime Minister in the same circumstances have evoked quite the degree of contempt that May has? 

But at the same time, we all know of examples of women who manage to carry off leadership roles elegantly and effectively. Think Christine Lagarde or Sallie Krawcheck. These are the women who feel less conflicted about their gender and professional identities, and research by Shira Mor of Tel-Aviv University and her colleagues shows that such women are able to negotiate more effectively, they’re successful and productive, and crucially, they don’t suffer a social backlash. 

Across five experiments, Mor and her team found that women who felt that their gender and professional roles were highly compatible were more effective in negotiations and were less fearful of being penalized for asking for what they wanted. 

So what do these women do differently during negotiations? According to Mor it comes down to a combination of showing warmth and persevering: 

“What I’ve found in the behavioural studies is that women who are higher in identity integration – they more frequently smile during competitive negotiations, and at the same time these women are more persistent,” she says. “They get better economic outcomes because they persist, and they ask for more.” 

These women are somehow able to combine assertive, effective behaviour with a bit of feminine pro-sociality. 

Ok, now I can imagine some women readers groaning – or spitting in contempt – at the idea that women should have to be “nice” to get ahead in business – or “relentlessly pleasant” as Mary Sue Coleman puts it – while men face no such strictures. 

The thing is, men and women have faced different evolutionary pressures over time, leading to a greater average disposition among women to be sensitive to others’ feelings and to try to at least appear nice. Cultural pressures have amplified this expectation hugely, so if we then find ourselves in a role where we’ve got to tell people what to do and negotiate fiercely it’s going to cause dissonance if we don’t temper this with other more female-stereotypical behaviour. 

So how can women increase the integration of their professional and gender identities and thus their productivity, negotiation skills and wellbeing at work? 

Mor suggests that at an individual level, thought experiments are the simplest way. In their experiments, Mor and her team were able to “prime” women participants towards greater identity integration before they entered the salary negotiation sessions by asking them to recall and write about past experiences where their female role facilitated or complemented their professional role. These women were then more likely to ask for higher pay during negotiations and were less likely to anticipate a backlash. 

It clearly pays to smile a lot and to feel comfortable about bringing an element of feminine warmth to negotiations. We can also build up our social capital by being considerate to others outside the context of professional debates. If we develop a reserve of goodwill and trust through making others feel appreciated, then they’re less likely to react negatively when we need to become assertive and violate the feminine stereotype. 

But we’re not limited to fitting into society’s expectations of how we should behave. We can change the culture around us. It’s already happening and it’s not just about helping women progress: research finds that increased identity integration facilitates creative performance as well as negotiation skill for women in male-stereotypical fields, so it’s going to benefit companies to make changes at an organisational level to help foster a different view of what women can or should be doing. This means promoting an egalitarian work culture and encouraging the salience of aspirational women role models. 

And a growing body of research suggests that role models, importantly, begin at home. One study at the Harvard Business School found that daughters were more aspirational and sons were more caring when their mothers go out to work. In a survey across 24 countries, the researchers found that women were more likely to be employed if their mothers had been, and also that they were more likely to have supervisory roles and earn more. Sons of working mothers spent more time caring for family members and doing household chores than sons of stay-at-home mums. 

According to the lead author Kathleen McGinn, employed mothers create an environment which hugely affects their children’s attitudes on what is appropriate for girls to do and what is appropriate for boys to do. 

So role models, as we’re growing up, in the workplace, and in the media, make all the difference in shaping our expectations and aspirations, and our professional behaviour doesn’t need to clash with how we feel we should be behaving as men or as women. 

All the more reason then, that the BBC should explicitly pay its top women, as well as its top men, top whack. 

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