Ask A Negotiation Expert: How Can Women Gain Ground in the Workplace?

By on / Teaching Negotiation

This month, Deborah Kolb, the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Professor for Women in Leadership (Emerita) at Simmons College, shares strategies that women can use to overcome pay and promotion gaps at work.Kolb is the coauthor (with Jessica L. Porter) of Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains (Jossey-Bass, 2015).

Negotiation Briefings: Past research has suggested that one reason men continue to earn more than women and dominate leadership positions is because women negotiate less often than men for pay and promotions. Is this still the case?

Deborah Kolb: A stereotype has formed that women don’t negotiate for salaries and promotion, but this just isn’t true. In their 2017 study of HR data and practices at 222 U.S. companies, which included surveys of more than 70,000 employees, McKinsey and concluded that the same percentages of men and women negotiated for promotions. In fact, senior-level women asked for promotions more often than senior-level men. Ironically, men didn’t have to ask as much because they were offered promotions more often than women were. Yet the same study finds that when it comes to pay and promotion, women fall behind early in their careers and continue to lose ground.

NB: What explains the pay and promotion gap, then?

DK: What I call second-generation gender bias—policies and practices that, unlike the overt discrimination that was more common in the past, appear to be gender neutral but inadvertently favor men. Consider performance reviews. Women tend to get much more feedback than men do on their style—that they talk too much, that they’re too aggressive, and so on, research by Shelley Correll of Stanford has found. Evaluators don’t tie women’s performance to business results, and this shows up at promotion time. Similarly, research on the so- called glass cliff finds that women are more likely than men to be asked to lead assignments, such as change projects or fixing others’ mistakes, where the risks of failure can be high.

Women are also more frequently asked to do invisible work—work that is in addition to their formal roles. They are asked (or volunteer) to train the new hires, help a colleague who is overworked, chair the diversity committee, and plan the office party. Invisible work contributes to an organization’s effectiveness but unless that value is claimed, it doesn’t count at promotion time.

NB: How can women use negotiation to avoid these traps?

DK: The good news is that although women still incur social costs when asking for higher pay, they are unlikely to be penalized when negotiating on these other issues. If you’re not getting clear feedback in your performance reviews, you should be able to negotiate rather easily for it. If you’re asked to take on a risky assignment, why not negotiate the criteria that will determine whether it’s considered successful or not?

NB: How can women negotiate to avoid the burden of invisible work without being penalized?

DK: It’s a “yes, and . . . ” conversation: “I’m committed to this, but don’t necessarily have the time.” “I’d love to do it, but I can’t do it right now,” or “Let me tell you about my schedule. What do you want me to drop off so that I can take this on?” You could say, “I’m willing to do this, but I can do it for only two weeks.” Or you might say, “I think John would be really good at this job.” These are not hard pushbacks, so you are less likely to face a social cost for asking.

NB: How do organizations benefit when women negotiate in these areas?

DK: It’s better if people get performance reviews that can help them improve. It’s good to get the best talent for the job. Take the case of a woman manager in the energy sector who was assigned to a position in Ghana. She lived in Texas and had a family. She negotiated to go to Ghana for about eight days a month. Why would you have someone who’s not as competent do the job just because that person can relocate? Women need to push back on assumptions that I don’t think people even realize they’re making. Companies will run better as a result.

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