In my mid-20s, my manager sat me down following my annual performance review and asked me a baffling question: “How much would you like to make?” To say I was caught off guard by this question would be the understatement of the century. I was both deeply confused and wildly unprepared to discuss salary. My entire career I had blithely assumed my manager would review my performance, track that against my current salary and industry norms, and offer me a raise commensurate with my experience and performance. What say did I have in the process? In my mind, the process was: work hard, do a good job, and the appropriate compensation and recognition would be bestowed upon me. I believe I panicked, asked for about $5k more than I was making at the time, and ran (possibly literally) out of the room.
Fast-forward about a year and I was, again, in salary negotiations. But this time was different. I was negotiating a new role at a new organization. I had recently completed my graduate degree, and I had a couple of close friends with experience in the industry that I could turn to for advice. I knew to calculate a salary ask based on my experience, education, and track record of success in my field—and my time in business school had helped me to understand industry compensation norms. But, at the end of the day, I still felt deeply uncomfortable with the phrase “I believe X salary is appropriate based on my qualifications.” Thankfully, I had female friends who pushed me to advocate for myself and coached me through drafting the email with my salary requirements. Still, I had never felt more nervous than when I hit send on the email with my salary demands. But at the end of the day, I got the job and the company met my salary requirements—they even acknowledged my ask was fair! Because I had asked for—and received—what I was worth, I walked into that job with more confidence than I had ever had in my career up until that point. Because here’s the deal: as women, we have to learn how to fight for our worth to be recognized. And we aren’t taught how to do it…we have to practice, which means we have to exercise that muscle. But if we are handed jobs, titles, or salaries, we’re never going to learn that skill.
Last year, California enacted a woman quota for corporate boards, which requires all publicly traded companies that are incorporated or headquartered in the state to have a certain number of females on their boards of directors. Of course, California is not the first to institute gender quotas for corporate boards. Norway enacted them in 2003, but they have yet to yield broad improvements for women in business. In order to reach workplace parity, women need to learn—and practice—asking for what they’re worth, and government-mandated quotas hold them back from that necessary personal development. It’s not surprising that Norway’s gender quotas for corporate boards ultimately had little impact on the general compensation and participation of women in business overall.
Let me be clear: the gender pay gap is real. The gender disparity on corporate boards is real. Both are concerning realities for our country. But government-mandated quotas aren’t just the wrong tool, they’re a relatively ineffective one. Because here’s the rub: cultural and social factors have been moving the needle along quite effectively—in the absence of government mandates. While women may currently occupy only 20% of corporate board seats, consider that only four years ago (in 2016), women held only 15% of the available seats—that’s a more than 30% increase in representation in a mere four years. What’s more, every single company in the S&P 500 currently has at least one woman on their board of directors. Of those companies, a whopping 92% have more than one woman on their board—up from 67% a decade ago. Given these figures, it’s not surprising that Malli Gero, the co-founder of the 2020 Women on Boards initiative, stated, “The pendulum has swung from a glacial lack of progress to visible forward momentum.” We are in an era of unprecedented progress in gender diversity. The market doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and corporations are already reacting to the important shifts in public perception regarding the value of female leaders. Indeed, studies are showing that female representation on boards can lead to better financial performance and increased innovation.
Women need and deserve more transparency and frank conversations about compensation and recognition. We need support and practice learning how to advocate for ourselves and to ask for what we want—and rightfully deserve. This change requires important and necessary cultural shifts, and there are roles for families, schools, and even religious/social institutions to play in moving that ball forward.
The good news: the data show we’re moving in the right direction. We’re empowering women to succeed. But mandating that organizations hire women based solely on a quota robs us of the important practice we need in order to learn to advocate for ourselves and demand our worth be recognized. Being handed a spot keeps us from growing strong, and deprives us of the opportunity to advocate for ourselves. We should enjoy the privilege of earning our recognition outright, without being reduced to a political hire. Let’s celebrate enlightened companies that rightly appoint qualified women to their boards and hold them as an example against companies that continue to exclude women from their boardrooms. We cannot afford to let companies that refuse to include women in their leadership hide behind a government quota.
Women don’t ask for what we are worth, because we have been conditioned to wait politely until we are offered recognition and compensation. Government mandates like California’s women quotas further encode this delusion that we should simply wait to be offered what we have earned. Rather than offering handouts, we should be teaching women and girls to fight for the recognition they deserve, to advocate for themselves, and to unapologetically pursue what they want and deserve in life.