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Why Do Women Struggle to Ask for Better Pay?

New research on "unentitled mindset" reveals confusions about internalized bias.

One of the most striking findings in the Women at Work report, published on International Women's Day by the educational charity The Female Lead, is around something we called the unentitled mindset. [1]

The term “entitled” has pejorative assumptions about believing other people owe you something, without reflecting on whether you have earned it. But feeling “unentitled” suggests that you don’t demand, ask, or even accept benefits that you actually earned. Among the women participating in our research, this mindset was most likely to take hold during salary negotiations. Instead of putting their case forward, they were beset by questions, such as, “Is now the right time?” and, “Is my case watertight?” A fog seemed to descend on normally decisive and confident women. However strong they knew their case to be, they felt unsure. In other words, in a classic example of internalized bias, they saw themselves through the eyes of someone who demands derisively, “Who do you think you are?”

The remedy for internalized bias — believing that negative stereotypes others harbor are true — is usually thought to lie in “fixing” your internal world. When women are reluctant to negotiate on their own behalf, they are told to “Talk yourself up,” “Tell yourself you’re great,” or “Lean in.”

It is important to remember, however, that internalized bias does not arise in a vacuum. It arises from experience. Women described the process of asking for a pay raise or promotion as emotionally exhausting. Their worry that they might be “asking for too much” was confirmed by the much lower success rate of their requests, compared to those of men. Their worry that they would lose status by putting themselves forward was confirmed by the cool, confusing, or dismissive responses to their request.

Just as I was puzzling over the unentitled mindset, I attended a virtual seminar by Hannah Riley Bowles on women’s problem with negotiating pay rise. [2] Bowles points to robust evidence that women are generally good negotiators — at least as good as men, in most circumstances. Only in some very specific environments do they flounder. So what is going on?

Asking for a pay raise is, stereotypically, a gendered situation, with men thought to do it well and women not, with men generally feeling more comfortable than women in making a demand on their own behalf. Such biases, in most contexts, are toothless remnants of an ugly past. The women who participated in our study knew how to manage and deflect most stereotypes. But when there's ambiguity and anxiety, low-lying biases are likely to be activated. Many of the women described asking for a pay raise as “finding your way in the dark.” They were not sure how much to ask for, or whether they should involve others as they made their case. Sometimes they did not know the range of possible outcomes, and had no knowledge of what others had been granted. These are the conditions in which “internalized bias” switches on.

Using this framework, we can see that an “internalized” bias is not a personal issue. It emerges when 1) people engage in a process suggestive of stereotypes and 2) when that process is also shrouded in mystery. Bowles shows that people who are, or believe they are, “in the know” are comfortable negotiating for better pay or status or conditions, whether they are female or male. And, whether you are male or female, believing that you are any kind of outsider puts you at greater risk, in these situations, of being gripped by an unentitled mindset.

Ambiguity gives rise to self-doubt, and de-mystification — information about the procedure, parameters, and process — yields confidence.

Unentitled mindset has another dimension, too. It is a response to the rigid template of the entitled worker as someone who can give everything to an employer and work all hours — someone who doesn’t carry the mental load of domestic and family organization. It arises from lower expectations of those who request flexible hours, or who leave the office at a pre-arranged time. In other words, if you don’t have someone like a wife as a personal partner, you are less likely to be seen as a leader and to become as a full partner in your workplace. Witnessing these attitudes in a workplace could reinforce the unentitled mindset.

Clarifying the process of pay negotiation, and showing that this demonstration is a normal workplace activity, will go a long way to promoting equal opportunity. Flexing that rigid template of what an “entitled” worker looks like may be easier in the wake of the recent lockdowns, as remote working and domestic intrusions become mainstream. Many firms have been forced to be more imaginative in designing jobs and in recognising the many different forms leadership and talent take. But there is also the risk that, where people feel “grateful for just having a job,” the unentitled mindset will maintain its hold on those who are most entitled to ask for more.


1. Apter, Terri. 2021. Women at Work: Breaking Free of the Unentitled Mindset. The Female Lead.

2. Riley Bowles, Hannah. October 23, 2020. Hardwiring Gender Parity in the New Economy. Presentation to the World Economic Forum.

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