Hey, Charlie, mind if I lean in? Photographer: Remi Benali/Getty Images

Jill Abramson and the Discriminated Lab Mice

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Women are routinely told that the gender pay gap exists because, unlike men, they won't negotiate. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever even wrote a book about it (Babcock then founded a negotiating academy for women at Carnegie Mellon University).

Well, the former New York Times editor, Jill Abramson, is not the shy kind. According to this post by Ken Auletta, since confirmed by other knowledgeable sources, as soon as she found out she was making less than her predecessor, and even less than a former deputy managing editor (both men), she negotiated. And, according to Auletta, that may have hastened her firing. "She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off," one of Auletta's sources told him.

Abramson's case is not the only reason the negotiation theory of the gender pay gap is probably flawed. The gap exists for S&P 500 chief executives. These women are nothing if not skilled negotiators, yet most of them make less than their industry averages.

Attempts are constantly made to rationalize the continued discrimination of women in the workplace despite the almost 100 percent awareness that it's wrong. According to Pew Research, a woman in the U.S. still makes, on average, 84 cents to a man's $1, and surely that's because they work less and take more time off for family matters. Women CEOs are fired more often because they are frequently hired in tough business situations, when boards want to try an exotic option. All these rationalizations are valid and backed up by research, but they may be missing a bigger point: Women are still discriminated against because it's such an ingrained practice that it works on a subliminal level.

Consider this: The National Institutes of Health have just revealed a new policy requiring experimenters to use more female mice. "Inadequate inclusion of female cells and animals in experiments and inadequate analysis of data by sex may well contribute to the troubling rise of irreproducibility in preclinical biomedical research, which the NIH is now actively working to address," the NIH's Janine Clayton and Francis Collins wrote in Nature.

It is well known to biologists that men and women respond differently to drugs, even simple ones like aspirin and nicotine patches. Still, many researchers do not publish the sex of the animals they use in experiments, and quite often they only use males. There is, of course, a convenient rationalization for that, too: Females' hormonal cycles are presumed to confound results. The NIH assert that this is not true and female animals actually show no more variability than male ones.

In a way, this prejudice is not unlike the one human resources managers have about women with small kids: It is assumed – as often as not, incorrectly –that they will devote more attention to their parental duties than to the job.

Clayton has a simpler explanation for the discrimination against female lab mice: convention. "I guess if you go back far enough it was sexism," pain researcher Jeffrey Mogil at McGill University in Montreal told The Verge. Now, scientists "just do experiments the way they were taught to do experiments."

Offering a woman less than a man would be paid for the same work and then getting irritated when she tries to negotiate; only hiring a woman to lead in extreme circumstances, then firing her when she cannot pull a rabbit out of her hat – all these practices are so conventional that they may actually be instinctive. That's the way it works with lab mice.

The only effective cure for instinctive prejudices is attrition. And it appears to be working. Pew Research says the pay gap has narrowed from 36 cents on the dollar in 1980 to the current 16 cents. And in countries where the gap is not closing (like in Australia, where it has actually widened slightly since 1994) women need to try as hard to eliminate it as they do in the U.S.

Even if Abramson negotiated for equal pay and it backfired, that was the right thing to do.

Corrects spelling of Sara Laschever in the first paragraph.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net