Closing The Gap

Women are paid less than men. Is the “ask gap” the reason why?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Women are paid less than men. Is the “ask gap” the reason why?
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“Research shows that women are usually more concerned with how others perceive them, and want to be liked.” 

We’ve all heard about the gender pay gap. After all, the discrimination and inequalities that lead to women getting paid less than their male counterparts for doing exactly the same job pervade all areas of the workplace.

From corporate offices to the highest echelons of Hollywood where even influential actresses such as Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence have spoken out, women are asking one simple question: why aren’t we paid the same as men?

It seems like every time we read the news, there’s another woeful article or statistic about the existing pay gaps. For example, according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, women will be paid less than men for the next 117 years – meaning salaries won’t be equalised until the year 2133.

In Singapore, statistics have shown that only 15 percent of chief executives are women, and that women are earning at least 10 percent less than men despite having the same qualifications, working hours and job responsibilities.

But rather than this problem being solely the fault of male bosses and sexist institutions, a new theory suggests that this salary inequality is something we can control. The “gender ask gap” poses the difficult question: are women not as good as men when it comes to negotiating for more money?

According to research by the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), there may be some truth in the theory, with 26 percent of men in the finance sector asking for a pay rise in the last year compared to 18 percent of women, with the men seeking double the increase that women were after.

But are men more bullish about asking for salary increases? Are they really more positive about their financial value than women, who are reportedly scared of seeming “bossy” or “argumentative” when it comes to stating their financial worth?

James Wallman, a Futurist who helped compile Yell’s The Future of Gender Equality Report – which predicts that there will be gender pay parity by 2045 – believes that the ask gap is “absolutely real” and not an excuse.

“Reality and expectations influence each other in all aspects of life and that’s as true in salary as anywhere else,” he says. “In general, since women have been paid less, they expect less, so they ask for less. It’s a self-reinforcing circle that supports the status quo.

“Of course, this impacts what women get paid. The ask gap isn’t the only reason men get paid more than women, but it’s an area that’s ripe for fixing.”

Ashleigh Clowes, an HR Advisor at recruitment agency Nicoll Curtin, sees the ask gap as “very real” and “highly detrimental to the equality of women’s pay”.

“To close the ask gap, we need more mentors instilling in women that it is not ‘cheeky’ or ‘rude’ or ‘awkward’ to ask to be paid what you’re worth,” she says. “That you are paid your worth should be a basic expectation – one you feel justified and confident in broaching when it is not met.”

However, according to Mrinalini Venkatachalam, head of Public Awareness and Youth Initiatives for the Singapore Committee for UN Women, women are just fine at asking for a pay rise – it’s how others perceive their requests that may be the problem, with negative and sexist attitudes often ingrained in bosses from an early age.

“The gender ask gap is commonly attributed to a woman’s inability to successfully negotiate salary offers, raises and promotions,” she says.

“Numerous studies have, however, shown that it has much more to do with the perception of women when they negotiate. Women who ask for raises are very often termed as ‘pushy’, while their male counterparts are seen as asking for what is his right.

“While the perceived ask gap might be part of the reason for the gender pay gap, we have to analyse the reasons for the existence of these gaps and to address them at an early stage. We should be challenging stereotypes and having conversations about equality in the workforce as early as the school-going years.”

Amy Russell, of Singapore gender equality advocacy group AWARE, agrees with Mrinalini that there’s no problem with how women negotiate.

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“In general, since women have been paid less, they expect less, so they ask for less.”

“Research shows that women can be excellent negotiators. The problem is the perception of women as negotiators in the workplace.

“We’ve all heard that where a man may be perceived as strong-willed and assertive, a woman showing the same behaviour may be painted as aggressive or bossy. These negative perceptions can result in women feeling nervous in this social environment, and therefore acting more passively and less confident. This can lead to the view that they seem like they are less engaged and ‘want it less’.”

Worse, Amy says, even if we personally don’t mind being perceived as “bossy” or “aggressive”, our bosses may hold these sexist thoughts anyway.

“Even if women don’t allow such stereotypes to play out through their behaviour, leaders and decision-makers (whom are often male) may still carry these biases and overlook women for promotions and opportunities, in favour of men whom they think are better able to make tough decisions and negotiate more effectively.

“Research shows that women are usually more concerned with how others perceive them, and being liked. They struggle to say ‘no’ because they worry about how they will be seen if they do – disagreeable, difficult, uncompromising – and often want to be cooperative and considerate of others.”

So what’s the solution? Are we doomed to a lifetime of worrying about how we’ll be perceived at work, and thus, unable to overcome the ask gap? According to Charlotte Sweeney, an equality expert, it’s all about preparation.

“Be very clear on the value you bring to your company and what that is worth,” she says. “Don’t undersell your contribution. Find out what others are offering for similar roles, and what others – including men – are getting paid.”

But with the subject of salaries being a sensitive topic at the workplace, and with market standards being unreliable, how can we actually find out what we should be getting paid?

According to Ashleigh, the most reliable way is to speak to consultants or recruiters. “Consultants spend all day matching people’s profiles to appropriate level roles and salaries, talking about and negotiating salaries on other people’s behalf.”

“They talk to candidates about their salaries, look at somebody’s skills and experience, and tell them what they should be earning. Find a recruiter who specialises in the area that you work in and ask about your market value.”

Once you’ve done your research, asked all your questions and know how much you should be earning, what do you do when it comes to the actual conversation where you ask for more money? Again, preparation is everything.

“Negotiating can be a very uncomfortable process,” Charlotte says. “No one likes rejection. Practise negotiating about smaller aspects of work and gradually grow your confidence in asking for what you want.”

Amy advises that “It’s good practice to ask for what you want in a way that is mutually beneficial, and to turn down suggestions by presenting counter-offers.”

“But beyond this, the solution lies in addressing the systemic problems that have created the ‘ask gap’ in the first place,” she says. “Until women and men truly have an equal footing in the workplace, women will inevitably have to work harder and tread more carefully to get what they want.”


According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, women are less likely than men to ask for a raise.

A survey by Glamour found that just 39 percent of women said they asked for a higher salary when starting a new job, compared with 54 percent of men.

When asked what they should be earning, women suggested a figure that was 20 percent lower than suggested by their male counterparts, revealed a survey by Carnegie Mellon University.

A study by Cornell University found that women will underestimate their own abilities and think they don’t deserve a promotion at all. The studies have spoken: the ask gap is definitely a problem for women in the workplace.