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How the ‘entitlement gap’ could be impacting your career

An ‘entitlement gap’ caused by women being socially conditioned to feel less deserving than men could be limiting women’s career progression, according to a new study.

Despite all the debates, reports and calls for ‘progress’ that have dominated the discussion about women in the workplace over the last decade or so, it’s clear that we still have some way to go until women achieve equality at work.  From the lack of women in senior positions to the problem of unconscious bias, there are still plenty of reasons why women are being held back.

And according to a new study, there could be another reason why women face such inequalities when it comes to our pay and career progression – the ‘entitlement gap’.

The study, which was led by Cambridge psychologist Dr Terri Apter in collaboration with LinkedIn and the educational charity The Female Lead, found that women have been socially conditioned to feel less deserving of things such as pay rises and promotions than men, a phenomenon they term ‘the unentitled mindset’.

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“The entitlement gap is largely a consequence of the unentitled mindset – the reluctance to ask for a pay raise or promotion or more suitable conditions even when you know you deserve it,” Dr Apter tells Stylist. “So, the entitlement gap describes the difference between ways many men might be quick to make demands on an employer and women’s hesitance to do so.” 

According to a survey of 2,000 UK workers conducted as part of the study, the problem is widespread. The results of the survey show that 44% of women agree that women feel less entitled to promotions or increased pay in the workplace, with more than a third (35%) saying they had experienced the entitlement gap themselves or had seen it experienced by others.

A woman working at her desk
More than a third (35%) of women surveyed said they had experienced the entitlement gap themselves or seen others experience it.

The implications of this gap were also made clear in the survey results. Among those surveyed, more men admitted negotiating pay for a new role than women (63% compared to 40%), and while nearly half of the men (48%) said they had asked for a pay increase or promotion outside of their annual review, only a third of women (32%) had done the same.

And when it comes to applying for a new job, over a third of men (37%) said they would apply for a new role if they felt they met approximately 50% of the criteria required, versus just one in four (27%) women.  

On top of the career-related effects of the gap, Dr Apter says it can have more subtle, insidious effects – especially when it comes to women’s mental health.

“There are two different ways the entitlement gap might impact our mental health,” she says. “First, there is the anxious energy and constant rumination that goes with knowing you deserve more status or pay or better conditions while wondering whether you really do. This is just exhausting mental work.”

Dr Apter continues: “Second, there is the risk that the unentitled mindset doesn’t switch off even when you are not facing the specific challenge that activated it. So, in our research, we had women who had been treated badly in one workplace who, when another organisation offered them a position with more appropriate conditions, were reluctant to ask for the status and/or pay they deserved because they felt ‘grateful’ or ‘lucky’ that another organisation wanted them.” 

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Although the entitlement gap impacts our behaviour, the study is keen to highlight that this mindset is not the fault of women – instead, it’s the product of a wider societal problem. Indeed, as Edwina Dunn, a data science entrepreneur and founder of The Female Lead, tells Stylist, the ‘unentitled mindset’ comes down to a “fundamental difference” in societal attitudes about what it is to be male and female.

“This is not about fixing women by changing the way they think – women are not born with an unentitled mindset,” she says. “It grows from experiences which encourage women to expect less, not to take up too much space, or not to demand ‘too much’.” 

While the entitlement gap can affect all women, Dunn adds that the impact of this gap is amplified when it comes to women from marginalised groups. “The entitlement gap emerges as a result of persistent bias, and our research showed that bias was intensified and amplified when it intersected with bias towards race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality or religion,” she says.

Man and woman on separate levels
Women's careers have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to its exploration of the entitlement gap and how it continues to impact women’s careers, the report also investigated the role the pandemic has played in perpetuating workplace gender inequality.

The results were stark. Among those surveyed, 40% of women agreed their career had been set back or put on hold since the pandemic hit, and 41% of women had left or considered leaving the workforce. New data from LinkedIn published as part of the report also shows that women have been hired at a lower rate since the pandemic hit.  

With this in mind, it’s clear that there’s never been a more important time to take action in the face of gender inequality in the workplace, and Dunn hopes that the pandemic will be a turning point in addressing the hurdles many women still face.

“Working women mid-career are making huge strides but, in too many cases, are held back by an unentitled mindset,” Dunn says. 

“However, I believe the disruption brought by Covid-19 could also present an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate change, and 2021 could be a significant turning point for workplace cultural norms. We want to raise awareness of the entitlement gap and to harness this opportunity to transform the template of work for a more balanced and equal future.” 

Dr Apter agrees that the only way to ‘solve’ the entitlement gap is to make bigger, society-wide changes. 

“Let’s not re-engineer women, let’s re-engineer the environment that so often activates the unentitled mindset,” she says. “For example, the anxiety surrounding pay negotiations often arises from the fact that these are shrouded in mystique. When we are anxious, those biases that we have in large part overcome, or which we normally can confront robustly, sneak in.”

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She continues: “But if the environment changes, and organisations realise that such negotiations need clarity, then the unentitled mindset will not be switched on. Simply naming a syndrome is often a comfort and a help and a step to overcoming it, but overcoming it will require changes in workplace mindsets, not in women.” 

Although it is frustrating to hear of yet another way in which women are being held back in the workplace, it’s also encouraging to see such a topic brought to the forefront of conversation – especially at a time when women’s workplace progression has been placed under such jeopardy.

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