Women Balance on the Negotiation Tightrope to Avoid Backlash

Hannah Riley Bowles

Hannah Riley Bowles

Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard Business School, and Carnegie-Mellon University’s Linda Babcock and Lei Lai reported a problem even more troubling than their well-known finding that women don’t negotiate initial salaries as frequently as men, leading to a long-term wage disparity.

Lei Lai

Lei Lai

Several studies revealed that when women volunteers asked for higher “salaries” in a laboratory simulation, they were most often negatively regarded by both men and women participants, who also reported less desire to work with them.

Linda Babcock

Linda Babcock

The team conducted four experiments and concluded male and female evaluators responded adversely to perceived “demandingness” among women who negotiated, preferring the “nicer” non-negotiators.
They found that reducing degree of assertiveness did not improve evaluators’s perceptions of women negotiators.

Babcock’s research also noted that when male and female volunteers asked for “raises” using identical scripts, participants generally liked the men’s style, but disliked the same words from women.
Women negotiators were considered “aggressive” — unless the requestors smiled, or cultivated a warm, friendly manner.

In 2012, Bowles and Babcock investigated behaviors that may improve the social reaction others have to women negotiators, but not the negotiation outcome – gaining agreement on a salary proposal:

  • Justifying the salary request based on a supporting “business case”
  • Communicating concern for organizational relationships

Neither of these tactics – used alone or together – improved both women’s social and negotiation outcomes.

Another approach was proved more effective in improving both social and negation outcomes:

  • Justifying the salary request based on the relationship.

Women who smile and focus on the interpersonal relationship may be viewed as adhering to typical traditional role-based expectations, and this behavioral accommodation may enable both male and female observers to respond more favorable to women negotiators.

Negotiation training programs advise girls and women to apply “3Ts” rather than adopting more traditional gender role behavior:

– Establish a positive yet persuasive tone

– Employ delay tactics to avoid being the first to name a salary figure

– Incorporate tips to sell yourself while anticipating objections and being personable but not personal

Kathleen McGinn

Kathleen McGinn

Harvard’s Bowles and Kathleen McGinn collaborated with Babcock in hypothesizing that “situational ambiguity” and “gender triggers” modify women’s willingness to negotiate.

In contrast, if women have more information about the potential salary range and are told that the salary is negotiable, they are more likely to negotiate.
This research suggests that women benefit from asking:

  • the salary range and
  • which elements of the compensation package are negotiable.
Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink

Journalist Dan Pink destigmatizes “selling” a negotiation proposal when he redefined selling as:
the ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives
in his recent book To Sell is HumanTo Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

He notes that effective persuaders and “sellers” balance skill in “inspecting” a negotiation with “responding” through “attunement.”

Pink’s analysis of successful sales negotiators is applicable to women negotiating salaries and promotions:

Attunement, harmonizing actions and attitudes with others

Buoyancy, composed of asking questions, “positivity,” and an optimistic “explanatory style”

Clarity, helping others freshly re-assess situations to identify unrecognized needs that can be addressed by the negation proposal.

Joan Williams

Joan Williams

Joan Williams of UC Hastings College of the Law summarized much of this work at her website, The New Girls’s Network, a blog of resources, findings and strategies to address wage discrepancies.
As a Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law, she offers such workplace policy recommendations to mitigate gender-based wage differences.

Cait Clarke

Cait Clarke

Attorney Cait Clarke offers another legal perspective in Dare to Ask:The Woman’s Guidebook to Successful Negotiating.
She offers tactical recommendations based on this research, and hosts continuing discussion at her blog, Women Negotiating.
Join the conversation here and there!

Dare to Ask*Consider your reaction to negotiations you have observed, and ask others who participate in salary negotiation their reactions to these questions:

  • What is the best negotiation pitch you’ve heard for a job-related salary increase or role promotion?
  • How did the person overcome objections?
  • How did the person manage the relationship with the negotiating partner?

Until more women start negotiating salaries, relational and business case justifications may not improve their social and negotiation outcomes.
The majority of managers may view women negotiating for salary and advancement as an expected practice for all employees when it is a more frequently-observed workplace behavior.

Related Posts

Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary 
LinkedIn Open Group Women in Technology (sponsored by EMC)
Facebook Notes

©Kathryn Welds


15 thoughts on “Women Balance on the Negotiation Tightrope to Avoid Backlash

  1. MW

    Ha. I asked for a raise to be brought up to the level of another male team member in the same role as me, with less experience with the team, and with fewer subordinates. I didn’t get it, but I did get an $8K raise. Then the backlash kicked in. I should’ve batted my eyelashes more, and maybe pulled out the crying card.

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience, as dismaying as it is.
      Your example seems to validate Babcock’s research findings, yet we are left with questions about viable – and dignified – alternative strategies to garner even better negotiation results.
      The fact that you did get a raise suggests that you applied some negotiation best practices, and have guidance to share with others facing the same challenges in achieving parity.
      Thanks again for mentioning your experience.

    2. PeachTrotter

      Thank you, MW, for sharing. Now I do not feel so alone. I, too, have experienced backlash when asking for raises and basically any time I am not “smiley, smiley” and jovial. Sometimes I simply do not feel like smiling. And just because I am not smiling does not mean that I am angry, hostile or any of a multitude of emotions I am accused of being by many men in the workplace. Thankfully, after many, MANY years of beating my skull against a brick wall, I now understand how I need to present myself so that most men do not feel … well, whatever it is negative that many men in the workplace seem to feel towards me. It has required me to feign acquiescence and deference when I am sometimes boiling angry or simply gobsmacked by stupidity. But at the end of the day it keeps the paycheck coming and most of the time I can avoid conflicts. In the end, I think that the only way a woman can really just simply be herself in the workplace without being unjustly labeled is to run her own company. And just for the record – no, I do not believe that ALL men are alike. It is just that I have encountered a majority of men in positions of authority that do fit this profile that I have learned to be extremely leery in the workplace. In some ways I feel that I was raised within a lie. That being that women can be and/or do anything they want. The part that is a lie is the expectation that most men – and even some women – will admire, respect and like a woman who achieves. I have found respect. Grudging respect and even some admiration at that, by some. But mostly forget the “like” part.

  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    Thanks for mentioning your experience, with seems to reflect the research findings on backlash and harsh judgments of women at work – especially women not judged as “nice” or “happy.”
    As you point out, it can help to focus on “the bigger picture,” like financial self-sufficiency, and consider that achieving respect in the workplace might be as satisfying — and perhaps as effective — as being “liked.” You also point to an effective exit strategy: entrepreneurship, for those with the confidence and financial “staying power.” Thanks for your wide-ranging comment, covering the experiences of so many in the workplace.

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