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Women Won’t Achieve Equal Pay by Following ‘Empowerment’ Cliches

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks during an event at the Knight Center on Dec. 18, 2018 in Miami.Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks during an event at the Knight Center on Dec. 18, 2018 in Miami.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks during an event at the Knight Center on Dec. 18, 2018 in Miami. On Equal Pay Day 2019, it's time that women transcend empowerment cliches and start taking collective action against inequality.Joe Raedle—Getty Images

On Equal Pay Day, you’ll see many think pieces explaining why now the time for women to be compensated the same as men.

But women will never get pay equity if they try to do so by simply standing up for themselves. Instead, they need to work together to overthrow the system that entrenched pay inequality in the first place.

When Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book, Lean In, was first published, many of its core observations were largely accepted: Women are holding themselves back; they disengage before they leave the workplace; and they should be more authentic.

Earlier this year, an Academy of Management article challenged several false contentions from the book. For instance, women don’t “leave before they leave”: in fact, they typically work harder to stay in the workforce and unintentionally burnout as a result. And women—especially women of color (39% of the group studied)—are actually penalized for being authentic.

Many women, even powerful feminists, embraced Lean In because they wanted to believe in the myth of meritocracy: the idea that if they just worked hard enough, the glass ceiling would shatter.

It is uplifting to believe you can change outcomes entirely through your own personal actions. For decades, the pay parity issue has been positioned as a problem of the individual: Ask for the raise, or learn to brag better.

Many women “experts” respond to data on pay inequality by offering “empowerment” advice: Speak up, stand out, and kick ass! This is alluring language to both the person saying it and those ready to believe it.

But the real problem isn’t women’s lack of willingness to advance professionally. It’s that women are seeking the idea of power, rather than power itself.

Emphasizing individual action denies the fact that the system in which women operate has immense control over the outcome. In organizations, power is assigned by position and authority. As such, any one employee’s power is limited.

Power is not simply personal, it’s profoundly social.

The key to real, lasting change in women’s status in the workplace is to act collectively. Rather than focusing all our energy on changing our personal behaviors, we can work to create a professional system that benefits all women.

For instance, women in the C-suite earn 24% less than do men in equivalent positions. From the perspective of an owner or investor, that’s a sweet discount that helps one’s own bottom line. But if the female executives of any corporation one day showed up at the board’s door, together, demanding pay equity, they wouldn’t need any slogans about “empowerment” to help them; they’d have actual power in numbers.

Ultimately, achieving pay equity is about more than making the same amount of money as men. It’s a reflection of how much power women have attained.

Nilofer Merchant is the author of The Power of Onlyness.