NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)—Her first pay check for her first job after earning a Ph.D. in communication studies made her angry.

She’d applied for several positions in higher education and in 2011 she took the first offer and reported to work. “I was left with the impression that salary would be discussed at some later point, and I naively waited for someone to discuss it with me,” she said in an email interview.

With a Ph.D. in communication studies and graduate certificate in women’s studies, she remains bothered three years later. “I don’t think this is acceptable. And once I realized I wasn’t getting paid what my education and experience really dictates I should, I’ve very much resented that fact.” She asked not to be identified to avoid any problems her comments might cause her at work.

As women move from academia into the job market they can quickly hit stumbling blocks.  

Young women graduating from college this spring can expect, a year from now, to be earning significantly less–almost 20 percent on average–than those male counterparts who are also tossing their caps into the air.

Women working full time a year after graduating from college earned $35,296 on average, while men working full time earned $42,918, according to the study by the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Researchers say some of that gap can be explained by factors such as men entering higher-paying fields. But a stubborn portion of the gap remains a mystery.

“After you control for everything, there’s still this kind of 6.6 percent unexplained portion,” said , which produced the study.

David Larson, a based in Malibu, Calif., has a strong hunch.

“I would say pretty much unequivocally that women are lowballed much of the time and it’s a substantially lower first offer than what would be given to a man,” said Larson in a phone interview.

Since Larson performs the negotiations on behalf of his clients he doesn’t blame it on young women’s negotiating mistakes. He believes that many employers simply expect women to take a lower offer and those expectations are set by social norms impressed upon men and women at a very young age.

“We all as a society communicate expectations to little girls, starting when they’re tiny,” said Larson. “We can’t stop ourselves from something we don’t really even know is happening.”

Starting Young

Studies, such as the Hershey’s Kisses “Pay Allocation” test mentioned in Linda Babcock’s 2007 book “Women Don’t Ask,” show that even in childhood girls have been proven to ask for less. The test had boys and girls perform the same task and then asked them to decide how many Hershey’s Kisses they deserved as a reward. The girls consistently asked for less than the boys by between 30 and 78 percent.

These social norms are difficult to change and it’s an issue targeted by the Ban Bossy campaign initiated by Cheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the attention-getting book “Lean In.”

Says Larson: “Once I negotiate, I can usually get (more for men) than I can get women, unfortunately, because I can be more aggressive and aggression pays.”

All of Larson’s negotiation is done through email, so the employer never knows that the interviewee is getting help. Even so, the negotiation must conform to expectations and social norms, meaning that he uses different techniques when negotiating for women and men.

“Women have to be warm,” said Larson. “If you’re not warm you can’t win anything.”

After factoring out variables such as the different fields that young women dominate, women still make less at a time when factors affecting the older workforce–such as age, hours worked and presence of children–are typically not strong issues.

For students graduating with business degrees, for instance, women earned around $38,000 a year after graduating while men earned about $45,000.

The gap has narrowed slightly over the past 13 years since 2001, but not by much considering that working women between the ages of 25 and 64 are more likely than their male counterparts to have a college degree (36 percent of women compared with 33 percent of men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor).

Particular Pitfalls

While salary negotiations are tricky for everyone, male or female, Corbett, of the American Association of University Women, sees particular pitfalls for women.

“It’s not straight forward,” she said. “You cannot say I want more money because that tends to not be received well.” In one extreme incident that she relates, a woman tried to negotiate a pay raise for a promotion and instead ended up getting the offer rescinded.

“Experimental evidence confirms that many people continue to hold biases against women in the workplace, especially those who work in traditionally male fields,” finds the AAUW report. “Yet discrimination is impossible to measure directly, and many who discriminate – both men and women – may not be aware that they are doing so.”

This poses a challenge in both pinpointing the problem and crafting solutions for it.

“The unexplained gap is unexplained,” said Francine Blau, professor of economics at Cornell University, in a phone interview. “Anything we say about it is speculative because that’s just the nature of the beast.”

However, Blau said the AAUW study is notable because it considers a type of gender wage gap at a time when it would be relatively small. “It’s when the workers are just starting out so it’s all the more reason to be concerned about it.”

This is a crucial time to explore the wage gap, because it only widens as men and women progress in their careers. Women with a college degree earn $1.2 million less than their male counterparts over the course of their lives, according to Women Are Getting Even, or WAGE Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

Student Loan Burdens

The earnings drag on college educated women is intensified by the burden of student loan debt. The same AAUW report finds that student loan repayments make up a larger part of women’s earnings as a result of the wage discrepancy that hits right after college.

Larson, the salary negotiator in California, says another problem is that many women are unaware that there is a wage gap, so they don’t know to ask about appropriate salary ranges.

Occupations with the smallest discrepancy in salary are those in government, because in this sector, salaries are publicly known.

“All the research shows that if women have perfect information, they will ask for the money. So the way this is institutionalized is by keeping it in the dark,” said Larson.

Many companies prohibit workers from discussing salaries with colleagues, a problem that would have been solved by the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Senate Republicans blocked on April 9.

“Only 4.4 percent of fortune-500 companies have a female CEO,” said Larson, referring to Fortune Magazine’s annual ranking of the 500 highest-grossing companies. “If the pay gap is not a problem, there’s no explanation (for this), it’s just not plausible that men are that vastly superior. And it’s institutional. It’s not just in our companies, we accept it as a society.”

Larson added: “At the end of the day, more women graduate college than men, more qualified women are entering the workforce now than men. There’s no reason why the wage gap should persist in women in their 20s.”