Why Always Leaning In For Salary Negotiations Might Not Work For Women

When Christine Exley, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School surveyed 200 U.S. adults about whether or not they thought women should negotiate their salaries more, nearly three-quarters said yes.

Of course they did.

Conventional career wisdom tells us that we should always be ready to negotiate for compensation and benefits at work, especially for a higher starting salary at a first job. This practice has been especially encouraged for women, who often fail to do this. Research from Levo and Glassdoor revealed that 66% and 68% of women polled, respectively, accepted the salary they were offered without trying to get more. This, despite the plethora of platforms that aim to help salaries be more transparent so workers can negotiate for what they are worth.

The result for women not negotiating from the beginning of their careers, according to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Women Don’t Ask, is the loss of more than $500,000 by the time they reach age 60—not to mention achieving pay parity with men along the way.

That’s a lot of pressure.

So Exley, along with professors from Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh, decided to dig a little deeper to discover what the consequences were for women when they negotiate. Referring to previous studies upholding the benefits of negotiation, they write, “While vast, this literature does not provide direct comparisons of the financial returns that women achieve when they choose whether to negotiate versus when they always negotiate.”

Their resulting research, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research and titled Knowing When to Ask: The Cost of Leaning In, found that women do indeed reap financial benefits from negotiation, but only when they strategically decided when to ask. What failed to net them a positive result was being forced to do so, rather than choose when they wanted to.

To reach this conclusion, the research team selected 292 evenly split male and female undergraduate students to take part in several experiments.

The experiments allowed pairs of participants (the workers) to argue freely through instant chat messages (so they couldn’t see the other person or their gender) to make a case to the opposing side (the company). Some participants could choose whether or not they wanted to negotiate and others were told they had to, no matter how they felt.

Where the differences arose were when workers had the opportunity to choose whether or not they wanted to negotiate. Here only 66% of women negotiated versus 74% of men. But when they did try to gamble for a better earning, they succeeded along with the men. When the female workers were in the forced situation, the results weren’t positive. The findings indicated that women were likely to avoid those negotiations when they found the gain was limited.

This builds on other research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research that indicates that women aren’t really less likely to negotiate. What they are is reluctant to do so in certain circumstances, like a face-to-face meeting. By comparison, the research team found that men aren’t affected by being forced to ask for something.

Of course, there are caveats. The research team admitted that in a controlled experiment like this, workers always knew what they were worth based on the computer-generated earnings. In the real world of work, there is room for ambiguity. That’s why they suggest that teaching better negotiation techniques isn’t the only remedy for pay inequity. “Our results leave room for an alternative policy intervention: Teach women about what they bring to the table.”


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