Women Balance on the Negotiation Tightrope to Avoid Backlash

Linda Babcock

Women less frequently negotiate initial salaries than men, leading to a long-term wage disparity, reported Carnegie-Mellon University’s Linda Babcock.

Hannah Riley Bowles

Women who did negotiate were negatively evaluated by both men and women participants in a lab study, found Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles and Lei Lai.
These volunteers reported less desire to work with women who asked for more money.

Lei Lai

Lei Lai

Both male and female evaluators said they disliked “demandingness” among women who negotiated, and said they preferred “nicer” non-negotiators.
However, reducing women’s degree of assertiveness did not improve evaluators’s perceptions of women negotiators.

These findings support Babcock’s results:   When male and female volunteers asked for salary increases using identical scripts in controlled lab situations, participants liked men’s style, but disliked the same words from women.
Women negotiators were considered “aggressive” unless they smiled, or displayed a warm, friendly manner.

The social reaction to women negotiators was improved when female participants:

  • Justified the salary request based on a supporting “business case,”
  • Communicated concern for organizational relationships.

Applying these tactics did not improve women’s negotiation outcomes, but improved other people’s reactions to women negotiators.

In contrast, women negotiators improved both social and negotiation outcomes when they justified the salary request based on the relationship.

Women who smile and focus on the interpersonal relationship fulfill gender role expectations, leading to greater approval by male and female observers.

Kathleen McGinn

Kathleen McGinn

Bowles, with Harvard colleague Kathleen McGinn and Babcock, suggested that “situational ambiguity” and “gender triggers” modify women’s willingness to negotiate.

When women have information about the potential salary range and whether the salary is negotiable, they are more likely to negotiate.
Women can improve their negotiation outcomes by asking:

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

Daniel Pink

Effective negotiation is a survival skill, according to Dan Pink:
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.

He noted that effective persuaders and “sellers” collaborate in “inspecting” a negotiation and “responding” to the negotiation through “interpersonal attunement.”

Pink suggested ABC negotiation skills:

Attunement: Aligning actions and attitudes with others,

Buoyancy:  “Positivity,” optimism, asking questions,

Clarity:  Helping others identify unrecognized needs that can be fulfilled by the negotiation proposal.

Joan Williams

Joan Williams

UC Hastings College of the Law’s Joan Williams offered strategies to address documented wage discrepancies.

As more women negotiate salaries, managers may view this as an expected practice.

  • 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?

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©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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