Women not as good as men at asking for money for themselves

My colleagues and I here at the FT’s Women at the Top blog have written a great deal about the persistent pay gap between men and women – and the various reasons for it. Today, we turn our attention to one possible contributing factor: women may not be as good at asking for more money.

At least, that is, when they’re asking for just themselves. For women, salary negotiations are anything but straightforward. According to a new study by researchers at Columbia Business School, this has to do with the age-old gender stereotype. Women are supposed to convey a soft, kind and likeable persona in the workplace. These are what sociologists call feminine “gender norms”. When they convey so-called masculine traits — such as assertiveness, independence and strength — they are perceived negatively and often even punished. The trouble is that when it comes to salary negotiations, these traits are necessary to get what you want.

According to the study, women often fare worse economically than men in negotiations because they must simultaneously negotiate social approval of their expected gender role and hedge their assertiveness – a delicate dance. Interestingly, though, the study, which appears in the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finds that when women are negotiating a salary and bonus on behalf of another person, a colleague, say, they do just as well as men.

How come? I recently spoke with Emily Amanatullah, now an assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business of the University of Texas at Austin, about her research. (Amanatullah conducted the research as a graduate student at Columbia)

“When women negotiate for themselves, their assertiveness could be seen as running foul of gender expectations. But if women are assertive on behalf of someone else, it does not violate gender stereotypes. It reads as caring, not overly demanding or pushy. Think Mama Bear: a mother going to the school principal’s office advocating for her child to be put in a particular classroom.”

Amanatullah’s research involved survey studies of executives’ experiences as well as laboratory experiments. For the experiments, researchers created a computerised negotiation where participants were led to believe that they were negotiating with another person about their starting salary at a new job; in reality, all participants were negotiating against the computer programme. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of two negotiation roles: one in which they advocated for themselves, and one in which they were bargaining for a colleague.

The experiments showed that the advocacy role uniquely affected female negotiators: self-advocating female negotiators made larger concessions than male negotiators or other-advocating female negotiators. In fact, female negotiators advocating on behalf of just themselves conceded away nearly 20 per cent of the total value of the salary in just the first round of negotiation.

“It’s not that women who are negotiating for themselves can’t do it, it’s that they know they’ll be punished for violating gender norms. They’ll be punished for pushing too hard.”

Amanatullah says there are possible ways to change this:

“One way is the ambitious idea that we need to break down society’s expectations of how women and men should be. But that’s not realistic on the individual level … So instead, we need to re-construe the situation in the negotiators’ mind.”

For example, when a woman is negotiating her salary, she might frame it as bargaining on behalf of her family. When negotiating budgets at work, a female manager might frame her actions as bargaining on behalf of her division or team, she says.

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