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The truth behind the ‘performance tax’ women pay at work

In her new book, Netflix’s Michelle P. King explains why women and men are held to different standards at work—and why there’s a clear solution.

The truth behind the ‘performance tax’ women pay at work
[Photo: kieferpix/iStock]

Before embarking on my MBA in 2008, I sat down with a male mentor to discuss my career ambitions. I already had a master’s degree and two undergraduate degrees along with nearly eight years of international work experience. I thought my mentor wanted to have this conversation because he supported my development. Instead he opened our meeting by telling me how he nearly enrolled in an MBA program, but soon realized that he could easily become a leader without one. Shaking his head, he looked up at me and said, “I just don’t get it, Michelle, why are you doing this? It seems like a lot of work, why bother? You don’t need to prove anything.”

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My white, male, middle-class, straight boss assumed that his experience of working life was the same as mine. He thought that if I worked hard, I should be afforded the same career opportunities as him, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Like me, a lot of women constantly work to prove that they are capable, competent, and ready to lead. My boss was a 32-year-old senior manager in a leadership team with absolutely no women. In fact, there were no women leaders my age in the entire company. Women work hard, and often a lot harder than men, by gaining extra qualifications and skills or achieving higher performance standards and taking on extra projects. Women do this not because they necessarily want to but because they have to.

Women are not perceived to be as competent as men to start with, so they essentially begin their careers with a perceived deficit. To overcome this, they have to pay a performance tax at work and consistently exceed expectations to prove they are equal to their male peers. The performance tax is a significant barrier to accessing pay and promotion opportunities.

To be considered as capable as men, women need to be exceptional.”

For example, research finds that, when it comes to evaluating men’s and women’s ability for a role, women face higher performance standards than white men. Specifically, if women apply for a senior role, like chief of staff, white men will be rated higher on objective criteria for the role, like years of experience or qualifications, even if women have the same abilities. To achieve high-performance standards, all women must outperform their male counterparts to prove that they are just as competent. This performance tax is the price women pay for not being Don Draper, the “ideal standard” worker. To be considered as capable as men, women need to be exceptional. And they are. Not only do women maintain a higher standard of performance, but they do this while engaging in a very narrow range of behaviors resulting from the mismatch between their gender and the success prototype.

Women are aware of the higher standard of performance they are expected to live up to. In fact, being aware of it presents a challenge for women, often referred to as the stereotype threat. When women are aware of the negative stereotypes people hold about them (for instance, the stereotype that women are bad with numbers), and they are put in a stereotype-relevant performance situation (like completing a math problem), then women are likely to feel vulnerable because of the risk involved with potentially living up to these negative stereotypes. Women who work in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or math) face increased pressure to perform simply because they are women. In turn, this pressure detrimentally impacts performance. Simply being aware of the negative beliefs about your capability can adversely impact your performance.

This is not just a gender issue. Women also face stereotype threats related to their race. Research finds that black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, and Native American female respondents have all reported feeling that their achievements were invisible to their organizations, despite the organization overly scrutinizing their performance. 

For example, as a double minority, black women are hard-pressed to ensure they don’t confirm people’s negative stereotypes related to their race or gender. They do this by going above and beyond their role requirements and consistently exceeding expectations. This is even more challenging for black women who are the “first” or “only” to work in a particular environment as they often feel like their performance represents their entire minority group. As such, black women who are the first or only employee in their domain feel tremendous pressure to perform at a high standard. However, the performance tax ensures that even if black women outperform their peers, they are likely to receive limited recognition and praise, making them feel self-conscious, invisible, and devalued.

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Men and women are also held to different standards when it comes to taking risks and making mistakes. Any error made by women only serves to reinforce the idea that they are not as competent as men. While women pay a performance tax, men are given a performance bonus. When men make mistakes at work, it doesn’t confirm people’s view of them as less competent. Instead, they are seen as trying to develop.

But women aren’t shortchanging themselves; the patriarchy is.”

This plays out in women’s careers in meaningful ways. For instance, it’s often said that women hold themselves back by only applying for roles for which they meet all of the job requirements. This idea became widespread following the publication of the popular book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, where author Sheryl Sandberg references an internal report at the technology company Hewlett-Packard. The report revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the job criteria, while men apply for open jobs if they meet 60% of the requirements. Sandberg writes, “This difference has a huge ripple effect. Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.'”

But women aren’t shortchanging themselves; the patriarchy is. Men have the luxury of being able to take career risks, try new roles, and make mistakes at work without being penalized for it. Men can afford to work in a role they are not qualified for or take on a stretch assignment because failing is simply equated with learning. When women fail, they confirm the gender stereotype and are deemed incompetent.

The performance tax is evidence that we devalue the work, contribution, and performance of women. This creates a ripple effect, limiting women’s career opportunities and earnings. When it comes to promotions, women are likely to receive less favorable ratings if they engage in behaviors that differ from the success prototype. For example, research finds women receive lower performance evaluations and fewer promotions if they are perceived as less dominant. Fitting the success prototype pays, because we value masculinity more than femininity. 

A 2008 research study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that people have a tendency to value “male” jobs like a teacher in industrial art or editor of an automotive magazine more highly than “female” jobs like a teacher in elementary school or editor of a food magazine. Even when jobs do not differ on any factors that contribute to pay, this study found that salaries will be higher for jobs that are considered more “male”—the average salary for “male” jobs is $39,651.71, for “female” jobs it’s $36,527.31.  A job is simply seen as less valuable if it’s associated with femininity. For example, the study found that an automotive magazine editor salary (male job) was $47,471 and the food magazine editor salary (female job) was $42,934, even though the job requirements were exactly the same.

The performance tax has a ripple effect, which limits women’s pay and promotion opportunities. Women across the board earn less than men after controlling for job experience, education, and other factors that could impact pay. The unexplained share of the gap is attributed to discrimination and this tends to be greater for women of color. The 2016 research report Workplace Justice: The Wage Gap: The Who, How, Why, and What to Do, published by the National Women’s Law Center, states that for every dollar earned by a white man, an African-American woman earns 60 cents, a Latina woman earns 55 cents, for Asian American women it is 84 cents, for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women it is 62 cents, and for Native American women it is 59 cents. 

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Lesbian women make less than men for undertaking the same work regardless of men’s sexual orientation. For transgender women, the average earnings fall by nearly one-third after transition. Women with disabilities who are employed full-time will be paid just 65 cents to every dollar that men without disabilities are paid and 72 cents to every dollar man with disabilities are paid.

While we like to think that the pay gap is only an issue for women later in their careers, new research finds that this is something that impacts all women from the moment they enter the workforce. In a 2018 report published by the consulting firm Accenture, “Getting to Equal 2018—Spotlight on Young Leaders,” 2,907 young professionals working in corporations were surveyed; the findings showed that within the first five years of working life, professional women on average earn 6% less than professional men, across a range of sectors. 

Women earn less because they receive fewer pay increases; the report relates that within the first three years of working life, 67% of professional men reported receiving pay raises compared to 56% of professional women. The pay gap not only highlights the inequality women and men experience when it comes to earnings, but it also represents the different way we value and treat men and women at work, which makes the performance tax and associated pay inequality a culture issue.

For example, one of the common misconceptions about the pay gap between men and women is that women earn less because they don’t ask for a salary increase as often as men. Consequently, women are encouraged to develop their ability to negotiate, speak up, and ask for what they want. In reality, studies show that women ask for a pay raise just as often as men, but they are 25% less likely to be given one. Asking women to close the pay gap may in some cases lead to a pay increase, but it will cost women in other ways. When women assert themselves and ask for what they deserve, they are perceived as difficult, pushy, and aggressive because they are violating standards society holds for how women are meant to behave, as outlined in chapter one. These standards exist because fundamentally workplaces devalue women and their contributions, which is why the pay gap exists in the first place.

THE FIX: Be transparent about pay and promotion decisions

The way to close the performance and pay gap is to create a culture of equality at work. For example, research conducted by Accenture in 2018 reveals that in cultures of equality, women are likely to earn up to 51% more. In these companies, women trust that the organization adheres to “equal pay for equal work.”

One way to create trust is to be transparent about pay and promotion decisions. In 2018, Verve, a technology firm based in the United Kingdom, decided to practice pay transparency. They gave all employees access to the salary information of their coworkers, managers, and even the chief executive officer. According to the company’s website, a key motivation for this was closing the pay gap. When organizations track, report, and share salary information, they have to own any gender discrepancies. Making salary information available to all employees is a clear sign an organization is committed to pay parity.

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In Verve’s case, the benefits have been far-reaching. Since they released the first salary report in July 2018, their quarterly workforce survey found that employees feel they are paid more fairly and there is greater transparency and clarity when it comes to negotiating pay. Employees also reported feeling more engaged overall.

Even if your company doesn’t support transparency when it comes to pay, this is something each of us can practice. Managers can be more open when it comes to sharing the reasons behind their decisions related to how work gets allocated, why certain capabilities are promoted, and what the standard for success looks like. Every supervisor can evaluate what “good” looks like in their teams and determine if this is being applied unfairly with their direct reports. This can include regular discussions to unpack questions like the following:

  • Are the reasons behind reward and promotion decisions clearly understood?
  • Are the performance and reward processes transparent?
  • Do women and men have a clear understanding of what they need to do to get ahead?
  • Do women feel like they are required to do more than men to advance?
  • What subjective criteria are important for roles, and do these criteria favor men?
  • Are women given an opportunity to learn and make mistakes in the same way as men?
  • Is there a gender pay gap, and are employees aware of this? Does the pay gap exist across the organization and its various levels or is it more noticeable in certain parts of the organization, and how is it being addressed?

It’s important for employees to play a role in this. The only way managers can know if trust is being created is to ask the men and women who work for them. Employees can share their questions or concerns and ask for more information about decisions made in the organization. They can also point out when that transparency is lacking.

Workplaces need to take extra steps to demonstrate transparency and build trust in order to make strides toward gender equity. This starts with leaders, because they are best placed to create the right environment for open and honest conversations. 


From THE FIX: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work by Michelle P. King. Copyright © 2020 by Michelle King. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Michelle P. King is a gender and organizations expert, director of inclusion at Netflix, and author of The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work.

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