Adapted from “Why women sometimes ask for less,” first published in the May 2010 issue of Negotiation.
The average college-educated woman earns $713,000 less over the course of her working life than her male counterpart, according to the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
What explains this persistent gender gap? Women employees’ awareness that they could be penalized for negotiating assertively on their own behalf is one factor, according to new research from Emily T. Amanatullah of the University of Texas at Austin and Michael W. Morris of Columbia University.
The fear of a backlash
In their experiment, Amanatullah and Morris had male and female college students engage in a simulated job negotiation.
The participants were told to negotiate either their own starting salary or a friend’s starting salary through five rounds of offers and counteroffers.
Before negotiating, the women, but not the men, reported believing that they might be punished if they were perceived as too “pushy” or “demanding.” Further, this fear of backlash was unique to women negotiating their own salaries, as those negotiating for a friend did not anticipate social punishment for their behavior.
Another negotiation study suggests that this fear held by women negotiating their own salaries is warranted: women and men alike penalized female job candidates who initiated salary negotiations, researchers Hannah Riley Bowles (Harvard University), Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University), and Lei Lai (Tulane University) found.
A self-protective negotiation strategy
In Amanatullah and Morris’s study, women who bargained on their own behalf opened with significantly lower counteroffers—about $7,000 less—than women who negotiated for a friend and than men who negotiated for either another person or themselves.
These women appeared to fear a backlash for behaving contrary to gender stereotypes of women as accommodating and cooperative.
By contrast, the women who negotiated on behalf of a friend understood they would not be penalized for negotiating forcefully for someone else—behavior that complies with the stereotype of women as caretakers who focus on others’ needs rather than their own. In this situation, they were not hesitant to negotiate assertively on behalf of their friends.
The results refute the theory that women are naturally less skilled or aggressive negotiators than men.
Rather, the tendency of women to ask for less than men in certain settings may be a self-protective strategy based on a very real threat of being penalized for behaving contrary to deeply ingrained gender expectations.
How to fend off a backlash in negotiations
The study results suggest several pieces of advice:
– Connect to others.
To close the gender gap and avoid a backlash when negotiating on their own behalf, women should try to link aggressive demands to the needs of others, such as the organization’s. Requests made on others’ behalf are likely to be better received.
– Stay vigilant.
Both men and women need to audit their judgments for the subconscious tendency to view assertive women negotiators as unlikable and overly demanding.
– Use objective measures.
When making requests, women should reference relevant standards that would be difficult for the other side to ignore. In addition, organizations should attempt to control the insidious effects of gender stereotypes by instating salary benchmarks based on objective performance measures.
Resource: “Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others,” by Emily T. Amanatullah and Michael W. Morris. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 98, 2010.
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