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stock_businesswoman9In the ongoing debate over the disparity in the salaries earned by men and women, Camille Kelly has discovered a new twist.

Kelly is a vice president with Universum, a global employer branding firm that conducts market research in order to understand the value propositions that corporations offer to their employees. A recent Universum study found that female MBA students’ expectations for their first-year salaries fall more than $7,000 short of their male counterparts’ expectations. And five years out, females’ expectations are more than $25,000 short.

“We already knew that women are getting paid less than men,” says Kelly, “But the fact that they are actually expecting less is revealing.”

Kelly points out that employers don’t go into negotiations with different expectations for men and women. “There aren’t different bars,” she assures. “What happens is that men tend to be more comfortable with their ability to negotiate an offer, while women tend to accept the first offer as is.”

And once the interviewee accepts, employers are not going to feel like they need to level the playing field—it’s not in their best interest to go back and offer women more than what they’ve already accepted. “If a woman says ‘yes’ to the first offer, then that’s it,” Kelly says.

Even with business schools providing negotiations courses and career seminars, Kelly believes it’s going to take more time and more education for women to become comfortable in the role of negotiating for themselves. “Women really need to be reprogrammed, and that takes a long time. They need to reach the same comfort level in the negotiations setting as men.”

Kelly says Universum sees the disparity globally, regardless of culture. And even in those cultures where bartering and negotiating is the way business is conducted, whether in a street stall or a boardroom, women still feel uncomfortable when negotiating for themselves as opposed to wares. “The one affinity group that we see in companies across the globe is for women—women face issues in the workplace that just transcend culture,” she says.

With the downturn in the economy making people feel grateful to even have a job, Kelly fears that women may shy away from negotiating even more.

But she says now is the time for women to practice negotiating for other things. “It’s up to women to know that there are other things you can ask for besides a larger salary.” She mentions vacation days, schedule flexibility, commuter benefits, accelerated entrance into training programs or vesting opportunities, and health-related benefits like gym memberships as potential bargaining chips. “Women need to know what their costs are, and if they can negotiate items like these, they can gain a lot.”

Kelly says now is also the time for MBA students to look carefully at their true skill sets, really think about their career goals—and if they can’t get a job immediately in the company or field they want to be in, they need to do a more profound assessment of the areas that might be a little bit more accessible and are still able to provide skill-enhancing experience.

“Maybe it’s a smaller firm, maybe it’s a related industry, or maybe it’s a functional skill set that needs to be acquired,” Kelly says. “Now is the time to be very deliberate in choosing your next stepping stone, because opportunities for skill development will be more prevalent than well-paying jobs.”

And when the economy picks up and women start asking for more money, Kelly believes it’s not going to be a problem on the recruiting end. “It’s not going to be unwelcome when women start asking for what they want,” she says. “There are some who will cheer when it happens.”

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