Women’s Negotiating Style is Not Responsible for the Gender Pay Gap
Adopting male strategies often results in backlash
Women negotiate just fine. Really.
This is the finding of a recent large-scale review study that looked at the most effective ways to address gender differences in negotiation, scouring both academic research and workplace policy outcomes. It found that women do best at negotiating when left to their own instincts.
“Our study says that women know when negotiations will benefit them, and seem to opt out of negotiations that are costly to them,” says Maria Recalde, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Melbourne and co-author of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study.
This is, uh, not what us womenfolk have been told for the last decade or so. We have been told that we’re doing it wrong, that we’re leaving money on the table, and that we need to be more assertive. “That’s the easy answer for a lot of organizations. They say, ‘OK, let’s have a conversation with women. Let’s encourage them to be a little bit more assertive,’” Recalde says.
The typical advice: “Women should just ask, and they should get into more negotiations, and ask for pay raises and promotions, and reach out more, send those emails, and behave a little more like men,” Recalde said. Never mind that this is utterly paternalistic messaging being presented as fact.
It must be womens’ fault.
This misunderstanding about female negotiation is rooted in a classic case of correlation not causation. Numerous studies have shown that women differ from men in their propensity to negotiate, as well as in their negotiation tactics, and extensive data indicates wide gender gaps in pay and career trajectories. But does the former cause the latter? Wouldn’t it be convenient if it did? Little research indicates this. Media, corporate consultants and managers ran with it anyway.
Let’s clear up some facts: Being more assertive in negotiations does not usually work for women. Lise Vesterlund, a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, co-authored a NBER study that pushed women to negotiate more like men, and not only did that tactic not work, but women’s efforts backfired. In practice, this could damage work relationships and credibility.
“A lot of the emphasis from both policymakers and organizations has been on this fix-the-women approach,” Vesterlund says. But the study finds “If we just train women to go in and be aggressive, like men, they will be perceived and treated differently than the men. They experience a lot more backlash. So making women behave like men is not the solution to reducing the gender gap.”
Women do successfully negotiate when a potential gain is to be had, and women usually know when their situations can be improved upon. “We’re seeing that once women know what other people are making, they’re actually pretty good at securing similar wages,” Vesterlund says.
The solution, then, is not to change women, but to change the organizations around them, which treat them differently. The study identified policies that work best, like wage transparency, which is pivotal because women tend to be more private about wages.
For your own negotiations, Recalde suggests proceeding with caution. Her advice:
Read. Try Linda Babcock’s book “Women Don’t Ask,” which lays out the general guide rails of negotiating. Then read some more, about your industry and norms. Recalde emphasizes that the negotiation timing and tactics that will work in a sales department will not necessarily work on an HR team in an advertising or healthcare or apparel company.
Get information. What are the pay ranges, and how often can you reasonably request a salary increase? What strategies have worked for others in your department? What are typical career trajectories for men and women with your job?
And above all, trust your gut. “You have the best understanding of your situation and what will benefit you, given the context in which you work and who you work with. So take all this information and make your own choice — don’t feel pressured to do something that may backfire.”