Secret deodorant isn’t just hocking a nice-smelling antiperspirant: It’s selling women empowerment. At least, that’s the vibe its popular new commercial strives to create by featuring a young woman nervously preparing to ask her boss for a raise. The commercial teeters on the edge of perpetuating a rather tired woman-as-victim message. but ultimately offers something more.
Lucy, a pretty, young professional, practices in the office bathroom mirror how she’ll approach her boss. The boss must be intimidating: She vacillates between addressing him formally, as “Mr. Kendal,” or casually calling him “Bob… Bobby,” hinting at the struggle women have in navigating old boys’ networks and dealing with male authority figures. One of her most compelling arguments—“Todd makes more than I do and has only worked here for two years”—suggests her workplace is steeped in sexism.
When an older, unattractive female coworker meets her gaze in the mirror, viewers expect the older women to put Lucy down. Our culture tells us women typically see each other as adversaries, especially when there are big differences in age and looks. But instead the matron offers her young colleague encouragement: “Do It!” Secret closes the one-minute video with the message “At three o’clock, Lucy does her part to close the wage gap.”
One of These Employees Is Not Like the Other
In reality, the wage gap in Lucy’s office would almost certainly be far less than the statistics we commonly hear suggest. Politicians and feminists imply that the Department of Labor statistic showing that the average full-time female worker earns about 80 percent of the average full-time male worker means that’s the typical difference between two coworkers, one male and one female, with the same backgrounds and responsibilities, working in the same job at the same company.
Yet that’s not what that statistic tells us at all. Men and women tend to make very different choices about work, which dramatically impact how much they earn. Men typically spend more time on the job each day than women do. Men and women tend to choose different industries and specialties; women tend to take more time out of the workforce and opt for jobs that are less dangerous, with more regular hours, and that are less physically demanding. Men take on dangerous, unpleasant jobs and bad hours in exchange for bigger paychecks.
When those factors are taken into account, all but a few percentage points of the wage gap disappears. That means Lucy may earn less than her coworker Todd, but it’s probably not by very much.
Women Can Undercut Themselves
Of course, that shouldn’t stop her from talking to her boss and making the pitch for a raise. In fact, some researchers have hypothesized that women’s greater reticence to talk about money may be at the root of the unexplained wage gap. Women are less likely to negotiate their starting salaries, and more hesitant to ask for raises than men are. Over time, this can add up and contribute to earning disparities.
That’s incredibly important—and empowering—information for women to have. We can do something about that. We can keep that in mind when considering future job offers or when approaching an annual review. We can prepare ourselves to negotiate and make the case that we deserve more. As parents, we can also make sure we teach our daughters from a young age the importance of being comfortable discussing money and to properly value their time and talents.
Lucy can do it, and she should. I hope that’s the message women take from this commercial. Rather than assuming the wage gap is a great chasm and proof our economy and workplaces are intractably sexist, women should recognize that the choices we make—and our willingness to speak up on our own behalf—will determine how much we earn and how high we rise. Recognizing how much is in our control will make women more confident, and give us less reason to sweat.