Deana McDonagh, a professor in the New Product Development Master's Program at Northwestern, is the first and only female professor of Industrial Design at the University of Illinois (McDonagh teaches at both institutions simultaneously.) She is the only faculty member in her department at Illinois with a Ph.D. While her work is internationally renowned, she is the lowest-paid full professor in her department at U of I.
"None of my colleagues have Ph.D.s and I'm not paid as much as them, and the only difference is that I'm female," McDonagh says. "You're not quite demonized for it, but you are certainly set to one side as a troublemaker by just saying ‘treat me equal.'"
Although McDonagh says she's gone through every protocol her university has for dealing with this pay difference, the university had told her the investigation into her situation is "delayed" and yet to offer any justification. For female graduates preparing to enter the workplace, this sexism is a critical issue, McDonagh says.
"You have to be tenacious and you can't seek approval or validation from others; you have to have a very strong sense of yourself because that is what's going to guide you when – and it's not if, it's when – you experience inequality," McDonagh says.
Experts say this attitude must start during salary negotiations, where the pay gap begins. In a study for her book, "Women Don't Ask," Carnegie Mellon Professor of Economics Linda Babcock found that only 7 percent of women attempted to negotiate, compared to 57 percent of men. This puts women at a disadvantage for equal pay right off the bat. Although some claim that if women negotiated as much as men they would get what they deserve, McDonagh is evidence this is simply not true.
"Women are taught to be nice, to not take up a lot of space, to not be demanding," says Alecia Wartowski, interim director and director of programs at the Northwestern University Women's Center. "If you're assertive, that's bad. If you're intimidating, if you push too much, if you ask for more than you deserve – all of those are bad qualities for a woman."
These norms don't just mean a woman is less likely to negotiate. She can also face consequences in the form of unconscious bias during negotiation. Violating these gender norms makes a candidate less likable, reflected in the negativity McDonagh faced from her community.
"It's like how they always talked about how Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire did the same job, but Ginger Rogers did it backwards and in heels, Wartowski says, "I feel like that's negotiating for women, we're doing it backwards and in heels."
Salary negotiations are generally one-on-one conversations, and discussing salaries with coworkers is often frowned upon. This shroud of confidentiality means women don't always know when they've been slighted. According to Wartowski, the best way to overcome hurdles during the negotiating process is through preparation, persistence and repetition.
Three organizations on campus offer a way to do just that. The Women's Center provides salary negotiation training for groups or individuals upon request. Northwestern Career Advancement offers one-on-one meetings that "meet students where they are and coach them from there," according to Kamilah Allen, director of student career advising at NCA. The newly revamped Women in Leadership Cohort has also provided salary negotiation training, allowing members to share their experiences and advice so that women can learn from one another in a comfortable environment.
Although these resources are beneficial to young women preparing to enter the workforce, there is still a shortage of dialogue about sexism in salary negotiation because the structure of these resources requires individual initiative.
In many ways, this makes sense. Looking and applying for jobs requires proactivity – you don't get drafted into the workforce. Because salary negotiations are a part of this individual-driven process, it's logical that seeking help in this area would come from the individual as well. But without active discourse, women can slip through the cracks.
"For young women graduating from college, they may not have hit against sexism in really clear ways," Wartowski says. "They might say, ‘Well, but I'm a math major and I've always been told I could do what I want and I played sports and I held leadership positions.' As they go out into the world and they start to realize, ‘Wait, the guy sitting next to me makes more than me.'"
Until women present a united front, Wartowski says, women asking for what they deserve will be the exception, not the norm. And being the exception is not ideal in a job market where companies are looking for people that will "fit in" with their team.
"I'm hoping the day will come where we're treated as humans, and we're not treated as ‘the other,'" McDonagh says.