Adapted from “Gender Assertiveness and Implicit Sexism,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Most gender research in negotiation has examined differences between women and men, such as the tendency of women to be more anxious about the process and to set lower aspirations than men. The question of how people react to female negotiators versus male negotiators has been less explored but is now receiving more attention.
Motivated by Laurie A. Rudman and Peter Glick’s finding that women are penalized to a greater extent than men for engaging in self-promotion, researchers Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard University and Linda C. Babcock and Lei Lai of Carnegie Mellon University examined reactions to female assertiveness in negotiation. Bowles and her colleagues described a job candidate who was either male or female, and who either did or did not make several assertive requests for benefits in addition to pay, including gym membership and a personal-use computer. When study participants assessed the candidate’s “hireability,” they penalized both male and female applicants for engaging in assertive negotiation behavior. But, strikingly, they penalized women at more than three times the rate that they penalized men.
Many social psychologists would argue that most of this sexism was not intentional. Scholars have noted a societal shift during the past few decades from explicit sexism to implicit sexism. Explicit sexism is quite visible; the sexist actor (typically) is aware of his biased behavior. By contrast, perpetrators of implicit sexism are unaware of the bias in their actions. Even people with a strong desire to be fair engage in sexist behaviors that they’re not aware of.
Organizations need to address ways in which employees might act unethically without conscious thought. Simply stating that sexism is inappropriate may have limited effect. Training instead should focus on the implicit psychological forces that profoundly affect a variety of behaviors, including negotiation.