About a year ago, I wrote a short post discussing the role of negotiation in the wage gap.  Short version:  Women don’t tend to negotiate as frequently or view as many situations as ‘negotiable’.  When it comes to the labour market, the difference between those who negotiate employment terms and those who don’t is a yawning gulf.  A gender difference in attitudes about negotiation is one contributing factor to the persistent within-occupation wage gap.

But negotiating is fraught with peril for professional women.  Research by Bowles, Babcock & Lai (2006, free abstract/gated PDF here) shows that women are often penalized for ‘asking’.  Where men are positively perceived for negotiating, women are negatively perceived for the same practice.

Sam Ladner and I chatted about this on Twitter after she linked to an HBR blog post titled, “Can ‘Nice Girls’ Negotiate?”  Ever the optimist about negotiation education, I argued that this underscored a need for a particular type of negotiation training.  In the experiments conducted by Bowles et al., the backlash women faced from men for negotiating was mediated through perceptions that the negotiating women were more demanding and less ‘nice’.  Women who negotiate with the type of dinosaurs that don’t like women to negotiate need to be master integrators, find solutions that create value for both sides and efficiently trading (or ‘logroll’) issues.

Sam (rightly) squinted at this answer:  Wait, she asked, doesn’t ‘training’ women imply that women are the problem, rather than sexism?

After all, the idea that women don’t advance because they don’t ask places responsibility for the wage gap on those who are the victims of the wage gap.  The idea that women not only have to be negotiators, but better negotiators (creating and claiming value without seeming demanding or looking anything less than perfectly ‘nice’) places an additional set of demands on the victim.  And, of course, prescribing different approaches for negotiation to women might serve to legitimate the idea that women ought to negotiate differently.  (You can just imagine the Sociological Images post on the guide for Negotiating Like A Woman!)

But on the flip side, there is empirical evidence suggesting that there are strategies that may help women soften the negative impact of asking (and particularly, of using leverage from competing offers and other similar techniques).  In a working paper by Bowles and Babcock (2008, ungated abstract + PDF here), they found a technique women could use in order to negotiate without their male counterparts treating their requests as illegitimate or imposing a social cost for having negotiated.  The two successful techniques were to frame their negotiation as an aptitude they brought to the job (the ‘skill contribution’ excuse), or to claim that they were negotiating because someone else had suggested they do so (the ‘mentorship’ excuse).  So should we teach this stupid (but apparently effective) interpersonal tapdance to young professional women?

Similarly, there may be means by which women can help keep stereotype endorsement from rearing its head in negotiation situations.  When these stereotypes are activated, a broad range of biases, misperceptions and errors in judgment can occur (see the review in Kray and Thompson, 2005; Google Books partial preview here).  One study by Kray, Thompson and Galinsky (ungated PDF here) found that the playing field could be levelled if a shared, non-gender-related shared identity could be emphasized.  ”The effect of achieving a superordinate identity,” they write, “is similar to the effect of negotiating with a same-sex partner.”

Here’s my perspective:

  1. Our first priority has to be teaching men. Not only is their stereotype endorsement (and negativity toward stereotype-disconfirming female negotiators) a cause of the within-occupation wage gap, but it is also damaging to the organizations they work for.  Just because women won’t (or can’t) negotiate to get an acceptable deal doesn’t mean they’ll stay working under unacceptable terms.  If you don’t want your most valuable talent walking wordlessly to the door at the first chance, negotiate.
  2. But yes, teach women to negotiate. It’s clear that women must go through some inane theatrics in order to negotiate their employment terms.  Given the long-term importance of negotiating at the individual level (career progress) and societal level (wage gap), this may be worthwhile.  But more importantly, in Bowles and Babcock’s studies, it wasn’t just male evaluators who punished females for negotiating — along almost every variable, women were just as punitive in their perceptions of women who negotiate.  Breaking this stereotype is important for women as employers, not just women as prospective employees.
  3. Don’t entirely replace negotiation with policy. One of the ways to end run this problem is to try and tightly bind up employment terms in mountains of policy and paperwork.  Nothing’s negotiable; everything’s set by managerial fiat.  Women and men get the same terms, no matter what – or at least, that’s the myth.  In reality, people (again, disproportionately men) will find ways of negotiating around these policies.  Even if they work, they tend to create inefficient deals that are sub-par for both sides, and they lose the chance to find tailored ‘ideosyncratic deals’ that leave people feeling satisfied and valuing their work.

Image source: Google/LIFE