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How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

How Gen-Y women can close the pay gap

April 9, 2013: 1:54 PM ET

Guest Post by Amanda Pouchot, co-founder, The Levo League

130409130440-women-equal-pay-614xaA friend recently told me about a male colleague; he joined her company one month after she arrived. "He's asking for a $10,000 dollar raise tomorrow at our performance review," she griped. "I can't believe he's doing that. I just can't imagine asking for a raise after only being here for seven months."

Today is Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into 2013 a woman must work to earn the same pay that her male counterpart earned in 2012. Much of the discussion about pay inequity is focused on policy and institutional discrimination, which is important -- but I'm interested in what factors we as individuals might be able to do about it. After hearing countless stories, like my friend's, from women in the Levo League community, a network for ambitious Gen-Y women, I realize: You don't get what you deserve; you get what you ask for.

Women make around 90 percent of what their male counterparts make when they first join the workforce, but the gap grows dramatically as they age. I knew my male friends were four times more likely to negotiate their starting salaries than I was, but I still didn't ask for more when I began as an analyst at McKinsey after graduation.

I'm not the only one who isn't asking. When we surveyed the Levo League community, we found that approximately 75% did not negotiate starting salaries at their current roles. The result of not asking isn't pretty: Women lose out on half a million dollars by the time they are 60.

Why Gen Y Women Aren't Asking for More

There are countless excuses from women who didn't ask for more money: "Honestly, I felt so fortunate to be given a job after my internship and after sending countless resumes, I thought it was a fair enough starting salary." Or: "Instead of thinking a company is lucky to have me, I'm thinking I'm lucky to be at this company."

I rarely hear such responses from my male friends. "I ask for a raise every three months without fail," one told me. "The company should know how much more value I bring and that I expect to be compensated for it."

Why do women keep themselves from asking for a raise? One reason is a need for permission. Another is a fear of going against societal norms. The study "Do Women Avoid Salary Negotiations?" found that when a job description says "salary negotiable," women are more likely to negotiate their salary because they think it is expected that they should.

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In highlights the societal perceptions that hurt women's careers. As women rise through the ranks and become more powerful, they're less liked -- while their male friends become better liked. Being bossy doesn't always equate with female success. Yet, the harsh reality is that if women want to reach equal pay, they can't let the fear of social stigma stop them from asking for a raise.

Interestingly, women are actually better negotiators than men --  if they're negotiating on behalf of others. "Women outperform men in representational negotiations by 14 to 23 percent," said Margaret Neale of the Stanford Graduate School of Business in her Lean In lecture on negotiation. Another study shows that when women expect to do well in a negotiation, they easily out-negotiate their male counterparts.

(Negotiation) practice makes perfect

Linda Babcock, author of Why Women Don't Ask, says strong negotiation often begins with a line that explains how the conversation demonstrates your skills. For example: "I don't know how typical it is for people at my level to negotiate, but I'm hopeful you'll see my skill at negotiating as something important that I bring to the job."

Gen Y women can successfully negotiate. Of the women in the Levo League community who are negotiating their starting salary, about half are getting more money. Those who didn't get a raise did not have their job offers rescinded (another common fear).

One woman who asked and got rejected didn't let it get her down. "I asked," she said. "I exercised the negotiation muscle. I'm still alive. It was liberating. And the next time won't be as hard."

To get to pay equity, Gen-Y women need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and ask for more.

Amanda Pouchot co-founded The Levo League with Caroline Ghosn.

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