The backlash effect for women negotiators, in Hollywood and beyond

Actors Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper bring attention to the gender pay gap.

By PON Staffon / Salary Negotiations

Jennifer Lawrence was angry. The December 2014 leaks of data hacked from Sony Pictures revealed that the young actress had negotiated a significantly lower salary than her male costars for her role in the film American Hustle, despite being part of an ensemble cast. Lawrence (like the film’s other female lead, Amy Adams) was paid 7% of the film’s profits; Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner each were paid 9%.

But Lawrence wasn’t angry at Sony. “I got mad at myself,” she revealed in an October 2015 essay in Lenny Letter, an email newsletter edited by actress Lena Dunham and producer Jenni Konner. “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early,” Lawrence wrote. “I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly . . . I don’t need.” She continued, “But if I’m honest with myself, there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’

“I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue,” Lawrence went on. “Are we socially conditioned to behave this way?” She noted that her three male costars on American Hustle “all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves” with no apparent concern about seeming “difficult” or “spoiled.” “If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical,” Lawrence writes, “while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share.”

“I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” Lawrence concluded.

The anger and frustration that Lawrence expressed in her essay reflect a dilemma that many women have experienced: They want to negotiate as aggressively as men, but they are aware that when doing so, they risk being perceived as unlikable and could be penalized accordingly.

Indeed, women who negotiate on their own behalf risk a backlash effect, Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles, Carnegie Mellon University professor Linda Babcock, and Tulane University professor Lei Lai have found in their research. In a series of studies, participants viewed women who negotiated for higher compensation as less nice than women who didn’t ask for more. The participants also were less willing to work with the women who negotiated. Male negotiators in the study faced no such backlash.

In part due to their awareness of the backlash effect, women negotiate less often for themselves in the workplace than men do. This tendency contributes to the persistent gender pay gap—the fact that women earn about 81% of what men earn, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Few of us have the opportunity to haggle over millions of dollars in a single negotiation, as Lawrence and her costars do. But the extra dollars that many women pass up when negotiating could make a huge difference for them, particularly when compounded over their lifetimes. Here we review advice on how to overcome the backlash effect and also offer a novel strategy from an unlikely source—Lawrence’s frequent costar, Bradley Cooper.

Relationships and requests

As a powerful and, indeed, well-liked woman, Lawrence may have taken a step toward leveling the playing field simply by spreading awareness of the gender pay gap. Her public stance could motivate young women, in particular, to take the risk of asking for more. Lawrence’s statements also could remind employers of the stereotypes and inequities they may be perpetuating in workplace negotiations.

Negotiation experts have offered varied strategies to help women and the managers who employ them reduce the gender pay gap. One line of advice may help women overcome the backlash effect by reducing the odds that they will be perceived as violating traditional gender stereotypes of women as communal and relationship oriented—and thus as unlikable.

Specifically, Bowles and her colleagues encourage women to use relational accounts—explanations for their requests that not only seem legitimate but also show concern for organizational relationships. For example, a woman might ask for a raise on the grounds that her supervisor noted that her salary was low for her position. To avoid being perceived as adversarial, women might also frame salary negotiations as joint problem-solving tasks.

Similarly, in her best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes that she advises women to explain that they are negotiating for a higher salary to help promote equality between men and women. This strategy works, according to Sandberg, because it shows concern for other women and not just for oneself.

In their book Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains (Jossey-Bass, 2015), Simmons College School of Management professor emerita Deborah M. Kolb and writer Jessica L. Porter look beyond the framing of salary requests to identify strategies that both women and men (but especially women) can use to negotiate successfully on their own behalf at work. Kolb and Porter advise us not to overlook the importance of informal opportunities for negotiations, such as asking for the resources we need (administrative support, a travel budget, etc.) to succeed in a new role.

Because superiors might not see the need to negotiate such issues, you may have to find ways to invest them in such discussions, note the authors. You can do so by keeping superiors informed about your and your team’s achievements, presenting your bosses with multiple options that you find equally appealing, and enhancing your power by making your alternatives to the status quo more salient in your superiors’ eyes. For example, if you are tired of being asked to take on extra assignments from another department for no extra pay, you could turn the next project down, citing your already full workload. Your decision could inspire your boss to initiate a conversation about how you might be compensated for taking on the extra work.

Teaming up for higher pay

In the wake of Lawrence’s essay, Bradley Cooper, her costar in American Hustle and two other films, told Reuters he thought it was “fantastic” that she had addressed Hollywood’s gender pay gap publicly. Cooper said he had been shocked to learn how relatively little Amy Adams, in particular, had earned on American Hustle, calling her cut of the profits relative to the size of her role in the film “really horrible” and “almost embarrassing.”

Interestingly, Cooper also revealed that he had begun teaming up with his female costars to negotiate salary. Saying that he had identified joint negotiations as “something that I could do” to address the issue of unequal pay, Cooper suggested it was time to break the silence on salary negotiations and take a more collaborative approach.

Some might bristle at the notion of a man swooping in to help his female coworker negotiate a better deal. Yet consider that both genders can benefit from this type of team approach. Weaker parties in a negotiation, whether men or women, can often enhance their power when facing off with a stronger partner (such as a film studio) by forming a coalition.

To take another example from the entertainment industry, in the early 1990s, actor David Schwimmer was offered a higher salary than the other five leads of the new TV show Friends for its first season. Willingly sacrificing a bit of money for himself, Schwimmer convinced his castmates that they should all start off at the same salary and negotiate collectively for the duration of the show. Schwimmer smartly foresaw that the actors would gain significant power by negotiating as a group if the show succeeded. The actors stuck to their agreement, and by the show’s 10th season, they were each earning a record-breaking $1 million per episode.

Just as employees gain leverage by joining forces in a union, you may be able to increase your strength and confidence by negotiating with coworkers for raises and opportunities. To do so, you might need to share salary information with colleagues or research pay data for your organization or industry online. (In many cases, organizations that forbid their employees from talking about their pay are violating long-standing U.S. law.) Such discussions can be uncomfortable, but they could pave the way to great rewards.