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Subtle biases tied to wider women’s pay gap

A new Bloomberg report found that out of the top executives at each of the companies in the S&P 500 index, only 8 percent were women, and these women at the top ranks of corporate America earned 18 percent less than men. It sounds like another story about businesses’ failure to promote and pay women fairly.

But here’s the headline Bloomberg came up with: “Best-Paid Women in S&P 500 Settle for Less Remuneration.” The first voice introduced in the story is Dawn Lepore, former chief executive at, saying, “I was always focused on negotiating for my team but never as good at negotiating for myself.”

It’s true that women often don’t bargain hard enough for higher pay, as shown by a number of studies and a terrific book called “Women Don’t Ask,” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The word is out, and solutions (hatched mostly by women) are already in the works, like coaching young women on how to negotiate before they enter the workforce.

But consider that women at the very top of the S&P 500 probably are among the best negotiators in the world, given their day jobs. Even if some might feel shy about asking for more money, the idea that their unwillingness to negotiate can account for an 18 percent pay gap flies in the face of study after study showing that gender inequality isn’t the result of women being scared to stand up for themselves. It’s subtle biases that inform how we all – both men and women – evaluate one another.

Take one famous study about letters of recommendation for faculty at a large U.S. medical school in the mid-1990s.

The authors found that female candidates were more likely to be complimented for “grindstone adjectives”: words such as “hardworking,” “conscientious,” “dependable,” “meticulous,” “diligent,” “dedicated,” “careful.” Men were more often described with “standout adjectives,” such as “outstanding” or “superb.”

It doesn’t take long to see this play out in everyday media coverage and commentary.

Just cast your eyes on the debate over President Barack Obama’s pick for the next Federal Reserve chairman. Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen has been described as someone who “does her homework.” She writes “carefully crafted statements.” And Larry Summers? We haven’t heard much about his work ethic. It’s his “brilliance” that we’re reminded of.

Other research has shown that when employers evaluate workers for promotions, women tend to be considered on the basis of their performance, while men often are promoted for their potential.

“In many small ways, it’s as if men have little plus signs next to their names and women have little minus signs,” says Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College who wrote “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.”