First, the good news: If you thought getting an MBA would lead to a bigger job and a higher salary, you were right. A study from the nonprofit Forte Foundation, based on a survey of 900 U.S. executives who earned graduate business degrees between 2005 and 2017, found that the credential boosted total compensation by an average of more than 60% across all demographics—men, women, and minorities (black, Hispanic, or Native American) of both sexes. Now, the more discouraging news: The infamous gender pay gap not only persists post-MBA, it gets bigger.
Women leaders reported salaries in their last pre-MBA job that were 3% lower than their male peers’. In their current roles, though, female MBAs earn 28% less. The study notes that the gap represents, on average, almost $59,000 in annual pay. Minority women executives fare worst of all, with salaries that are 52%, or about $77,000, less than “non-minority” men’s.
The figures are “a wake-up call” to companies who need to try harder to close the gap, says Elissa Sangster, the Forte Foundation’s CEO. “Some big companies already do an amazing job of closely tracking and comparing their high-potential people throughout their careers, to make sure they’re compensated appropriately at each step. But many employers are still not doing this at all, and they risk losing highly skilled female talent.”
Depending on where you work, hoping your employer will get around to addressing the pay gap might feel like the corporate version of Waiting for Godot. Although About 40% of women MBAs in the survey said they were aware of being underpaid, either right now or in a previous job, they most often reported reactions that would no doubt baffle their male counterparts. The top two: “I have not taken action and do not intend to” and “I left the company.”
Why not try negotiating for more money, the same way men do? It’s a good question, with a complicated answer. For one thing, in deciding whether or not to leave a job, women seem more likely to take into account factors other than pay, including how flexible a job is, where it’s located, and how much they enjoy what they do and the people they do it with. “Women tend to see compensation as just one component of their worth to an organization, and their job satisfaction,” observes Sangster. By contrast, “men are more likely to measure success in dollars.”
Maybe, but there’s another, more uncomfortable reality at work here, too. Even when women do ask for more money, they’re much less likely to get it. According to a 2016 Glassdoor analysis, men come out winners three times as often as women do. “Social stereotypes about women make it unacceptable for us. We’re supposed to be taking care of others, not asking for anything for ourselves,” says Carol Frohlinger. She adds that blaming male chauvinism is too easy: “Research shows that women most often don’t get raises even when requesting them from other women.”
Frohlinger is an attorney who runs a coaching and consulting firm, Negotiating Women, that works with big clients like Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and MetLife on developing female talent. “Women do need to get more assertive” about pay, Frohlinger says, but “how you approach the subject is crucial.” She recommends these three steps:
- Plan ahead. “It’s like strategizing about your taxes,” says Frohlinger. “You think about it all year ’round, rather than waiting until December 31 and then thinking, ‘Hm, what should I have done?’” Keep a journal of your accomplishments and add to it weekly or monthly, so nothing gets overlooked or forgotten, and quantify your results whenever possible. Go after “stretch” assignments and high-profile projects when they pop up, and note in detail how they turn out. Along the way, get as much feedback as you can. “This is essential for women,” Frohlinger notes. “Studies show that women get far less feedback than men. But, if you don’t know what’s broken, you can’t fix it.” Ask peers and higher-ups for specific critiques.
- Know your market value. Go to sites like Salary.com, Payscale.com, and Glassdoor to check out what your role pays in other companies. “Be sure to compare apples with apples,” says Frohlinger. “To get as accurate a figure as possible, you need to look at title, experience, industry, company size, and geographic location.” With that information in hand, you can start negotiating by pointing out, “‘The market value of my position right now is X. I think I’m worth that much, and here’s why’,” Frohlinger notes. “From there, it’s a matter of selling your accomplishments”—which you’ve already written down throughout the past year (or however long it’s been since your last salary review). “This factual approach depersonalizes the discussion, so it’s like any other business proposition,” she says. “It doesn’t put people off.”
- Make the conversation about “us”. Frohlinger advises bargaining with your boss, rather than with anyone in human resources, for the common-sense reason that “the person you report to directly is the one who knows your work best, and who presumably wants you to keep doing it.” The last thing you want is for this meeting to turn adversarial. “You’re on the same side,” says Frohlinger. The tone to aim for is, “How can we get my total compensation as close as possible to my market value?”—emphasis on “we.” Even if a substantial salary bump just isn’t in the budget right now, a boss who wants you to stick around “can usually find other goodies to enhance your career looking forward,” Frohlinger says. “Some kinds of training, for example, can put you into a whole new category, with different salary bands.” You might even go into the discussion with a few suggestions of your own about things that would satisfy you as much, or nearly as much, as a big raise. By bringing those ideas to the table, “you can help make it easy for your boss to say ‘yes’.”
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century.