The gender wage gap drew a spotlight in the presidential campaign, as both sides duked it out for women's votes. But while we accept the gap's persistence, we're still guessing at its origins. One explanation, from both the right and the left, is that women are less ambitious -- either they make explicit choices to put family before work or their shrink from the opportunity to demand a higher salary or better job. This explanation seeks to explain the fact that many women are stalled in middle management and make up a pitiful percentage of America's C-suite. (See: the debate over why a mere 14 percent of Goldman Sachs's new partners and 23 percent of its new managing directors were women this year.)
When researchers have studied the ambition gap, they've discovered something peculiar: It's not there. Women do ask for more. They just aren't rewarded for it.
The research organization Catalyst, for example, found that among MBA grads on a traditional career track, women are even more likely than men to seek out skill-building experiences and training opportunities and to make their achievements visible by asking for feedback and promotions. Women also reported similar rates of negotiating as men: 47 percent of women and 52 percent of men had asked for a higher salary during the hiring process, and 14 percent of women and 15 percent of men had asked for a higher position. No gap there.
A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reported similar findings. When it was not made explicit that prospective employees could negotiate salary, men were more likely than women to haggle anyway. But once it was made explicit, women drove an even harder bargain than men. Does that reflect an ambition gap or an equal hunger for higher pay?