Why Women Don't Negotiate


Back in 2007, I wrote an article on Wise Bread about how women simply need to demand more money when negotiating a salary, either at a new job or an existing one. It's not that I have a long history of excellent salary negotiating skills or anything. Over the years, I've wavered between superb and terrible, depending on what my employment status was at the time. Fully employed but seeking better opportunities? I'm a negotiating whiz. Teetering on the brink of financial collapse? I'm so soft and mushy you could cut me with a butter knife and pay me in Monopoly money. (See also: Conversation Killers: What's Holding You Back from Negotiating?)

I understand the fundamentals of salary negotiation. I know what my skills are worth in the marketplace. That doesn't mean that I have gotten comfortable with negotiating my salary. Even when I know that I have outperformed expectations and really made a difference in the workplace, I find it extraordinarily difficult to say, "Thanks for the offer of a 1% increase, but I'll be needing at least a 6% pay raise." 

It's Not Just Our Fault

For years I sort of assumed that this lack of skill was due to me being kind of a weenie. Women aren't really taught to be aggressive, and we are afraid of appearing like money-grubbers in front of our colleagues and supervisors. But this is our own problem, right? I certainly assumed so, because many financial gurus (ahem, Suze Orman) taught that a take-no-prisoners attitude was the key to success. I figured that I was simply too weak to get on board and demand more money, and that weakness was my own fault.

So, a few weeks ago, when I heard a story on NPR about women's lack of negotiating skills, I was thinking, "Yo, NPR, I'm really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but I wrote the BEST ARTICLE OF ALL TIME about this topic four years ago." Because, honestly, what else is there to say about women learning to negotiate? Women don't haggle well because they find it scary. Women are kind of weak, and they need to learn not to fear demanding more money. That includes me, of course. Despite my own advice about how to negotiate for more, my heart still jumps in my throat during my annual salary review.

"Women need to get over that kind of thing," I muttered, only half-listening to NPR. And then I heard this part of the story:

[Carnegie Mellon Professor Linda] Babcock showed people videos of men and women asking for a raise, following the exact same script. People liked the man's style and said, "Yes, pay him more." But the woman?

"People found that to be way too aggressive," Babcock says. "She was successful in getting the money, but people did not like her. They thought she was too demanding. And this can have real consequences for a woman's career."

To be clear, both men and women thought this way. (Emphasis added)

The issue is not that women are weak. It's that for women, negotiating is risky. Women are not incorrect in being worried that asking for a raise will make them seem aggressive. They WILL be perceived as aggressive, in a negative way, even when they follow the exact same script as a man, asking for the same thing. In the business world, aggressiveness is seen as a negative trait in women, but a positive one in men.

We actually know exactly how we will be perceived when we ask for more. Women don't labor under the misconception that asking for higher pay might be seen as aggressive; we live in a world where this is a fact.

And it's not just men who see women this way; we see ourselves this way.

Part of me wants to say, "Who cares? People need to learn that women can be aggressive." But this is an ingrained thought process, and those can be hard to change. Also, I've worked at companies with women who I loathed because of their overly aggressive and bossy nature. I'm as bad as anyone else when it comes to thinking that an aggressive, business-minded woman is just, to be frank, kind of a bitch.

What Does Lack of Negotiation Cost Women?

I've been thinking about the Carnegie Mellon study pretty much every day since the story first aired, and it bothers the heck out of me. It bothers me because I can completely believe the results of the study, in which a woman who acts exactly the same as a man is seen by observers as unlikable.

On one hand, the study involved a small sampling of people, and only two subjects — one man and one woman. I have no idea if there really WAS something about this woman who struck totally reasonable study participants as really unlikable. But it's my suspicion that the issue really is deeper than that, and that we expect women to ask for things in a certain way, and men in another way.

The problem with this expectation is that it ultimately hurts women. Knowing that we are going to be seen as unlikable when we state our cases for getting a raise makes us less likely to ask for a raise.

"I tell my graduate students that by not negotiating their job at the beginning of their career, they're leaving anywhere between $1 million and $1.5 million on the table in lost earnings over their lifetime," Babcock says.

And her figure doesn't even include company retirement contributions, which are also based on a share of salary.

See that? Not asking for a raise can make a difference of $1 million in lost earnings over your lifetime. That's not just worrisome; it's tragic.

What Should Women Do?

How should women negotiate pay raises? After all, it's not fair to lose $1 million in earnings over the course of your career. According to the researchers who conducted the study:

Babcock and Harvard researcher Hannah Riley Bowles wanted to find a way for women to ask for more yet avoid this societal backlash. They tested various strategies and found some that do work. Women can justify the request by saying their team leader, for example, thought they should ask for a raise. Or they can convince the boss their negotiating skills are good for the company. The trick, Babcock says, is to conform to a feminine stereotype: appear friendly, warm, and concerned for others above yourself.

I cannot possibly describe how much this idea rankles my Mount Holyoke-educated feminist brain. What is this, Mad Men? Why on Earth should I present myself as more concerned for everyone other than myself when asking for more money? Why shouldn't I expect to be able to present my case for increased salary in an honest way, regardless of whether or not the presentation isn't immediately palatable to a superior? Isn't that how social change occurs?

On the other hand, which issue is more important at the moment: My salary or the societal expectations that are placed upon women? I don't mean to suggest that I alone, by negotiating like a man, will somehow change the course of cultural norms and allow women to be at least as aggressive as men in the realm of salary negotiations. I alone do not have that kind of power.

My Negotiation Debate

Should I still charge forward and hope that other women will do the same, thus forever changing the way that female negotiating skills are looked at? Or should I use my feminine wiles to increase my salary, even if it means communicating in a way that I find, frankly, rather repressive? I've certainly used womanly charms to get what I wanted before, even though I am rather loathe to admit it. Then again, I don't know if flirting with a store clerk for a discount is actually hurtful to my fellow women, because it seems like such a harmless act.

When it comes to the world of salary negotiation, I am certainly torn. My salary, and its steady, incremental increase are crucial to my long-term financial security. As such, my concern over my salary might outweigh my concern for how women, and American women in particular, are forced to be passive-aggressive in their requests for increased monetary compensation. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if this was an issue that had already been resolved?

How do other women feel about this? Would you rather be straightforward in your negotiating? Or have you already worked out a system for asking for pay raises?

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Guest's picture

I found myself nodding excessively while reading this. I'm actually working on a project about female aggression right now and how it's perceived by society. I find it so sad that women those few women who do express themselves freely have to suffer the consequences of being judged...while the women who don't express their aggression, and yes, I do call it aggression, usually turn their aggression inwards and let it build up. Great article!

Guest's picture

The Washington Post had a good article on Babcock's work back in 2007.
Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling
It has details of Babcock's studies with larger groups of people. The bias against women negotiating was consistent through the groups of volunteers.

It seems to me - the best way to capture salary increases without the penalty is to find a new job - where you negotiate with the HR person for the starting salary. Since you're not working for the HR person - who's been empowered with a salary range - any disapproval they feel isn't going to translate to working for the new boss. Twisted, huh?

I also think salary transparency helps to resolve such issues. Which of course is why most organizations want to keep salaries secret because it exposes salary biases that are unrelated to job performance.

I do want to point out your comments that kind of captures the entire circular challenge here: " I have no idea if there really WAS something about this woman who struck totally reasonable study participants as really unlikable. "
But what if the man was also unlikable? And still got the raise? This is the heart of the issue - unlikeable men still get raises. Women are regarded as unlikeable merely for asking. And yet you're disturbed by the recc for women to negotiate while staying w/in feminine stereotypes, i.e. likeable. You can't have it both ways:-)

"Also, I've worked at companies with women who I loathed because of their overly aggressive and bossy nature. I'm as bad as anyone else when it comes to thinking that an aggressive, business-minded woman is just, to be frank, kind of a bitch."
Did you think the same way about pushy over aggressive men? Is it a matter of degree or a result of socialization that ambitious women that don't soft pedal it are just bitchy?
(http://ambitchous.typepad.com/ambition_is_not_a_dirty_w/ambition/) Dr. Debra Condren explores this area.

I'm not trying to beat up on you here -

I'm a woman, I've had the same the reaction at times, but I do try very hard these days to catch myself and ask - would I have the same reaction if she were male? Occasionally the answer is yes - she'd still be an asshole - but more often it's no - I'd just think he's going after it. And I make a real effort to say something anytime I hear/witness unequal judgement. " Bob's using the same approach" or "John had's great success with that - it's good to see Carol adopting it" anything to try and connect it as a behavior that's rewarded in men. (Note this does not apply to harassing, demeaning, or otherwise objectionable behavior).

The good news here is Babcock's research means women aren't imagining the inequity and it's not all their fault. The bad news is we aren't imagining the inequity and it's not all our fault:-) But now that's documented progress can be worked on.

We can't tell women to be more assertive and then ding them when they do it.

Bottom line - men and women both need training WRT to gender based negotiating bias.

Andrea Karim's picture

Woah, thank you for the thoughtful comment and all the links.

"Did you think the same way about pushy over aggressive men? Is it a matter of degree or a result of socialization that ambitious women that don't soft pedal it are just bitchy?"

Oh, no, this was absolutely a matter of my societal conditioning telling me that women can't be bossy or aggressive - especially ironic given that I attended college where we were encouraged to be as bossy and aggressive as we needed to be. That's what made the NPR story so painful to hear - I'm as big a part of the problem as I am a part of the solution.

Andrea Karim's picture

I also TOTALLY agree on the salary transparency issue. I'm disheartened when HR tells an employee "Don't discuss your salary." What they mean is, "We are screwing over at least 30% of the employees here, and we don't want them to know."

I've been at the receiving end of a couple of missent emails proclaiming that the company was doing well financially since they managed to get Employee X to agree to such a lousy salary. It's never a good thing.

Guest's picture

Excellent article - sorry I missed the PBS show. I worked on Wall Street in the '80s and '90s and was one of the few women on the trading desk. Luckily there are reviews every six months and they pretty much judge you by your numbers. On Wall Street the saying is "you're only as good as your last trade". But in subsequent jobs I had the same problem of being "too aggressive" if I asked for a raise. Unfortunately the workforce management is still biased so before you ask for a salary increase "know your boss" and exercise some psychological warfare.

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks for reading!

You know what? Sometimes I think of the psychological warfare as being a fascinating game to play, but then, I have more time than a lot of women do to think about that kind of thing.

I can see where aggressiveness across genders might be considered an asset in some professions, and I hadn't really delved into that, either. I was thinking mostly of your average office employee or warehouse worker, but I would see how Wall Street wouldn't really care one way or another how you came across.

Of course, like you say, it puts you in a different mindset than other industries are willing to accept.

Guest's picture

Crap. File this one under the things I never knew and really didn't want to know.

I was a manager for a high tech firm. I was in my own opinion, good. Others seemed to think so too. When we did salaries I was amazed that a bunch of the guys working for me, made more than me. How the heck did that happen? I got promoted over them but clearly because I stayed within the female stereotype and didn't ask for more money, I was not seen as "aggressive". I had no idea that I was being underpaid. I guess as long as they spent the appropriate time complementing me I would have gone home with no raise, happy.

Andrea Karim's picture

Oh, Connie, I'm so sorry to hear that! There is nothing worse than realizing that you've been cheated out of what is rightfully yours.

I'm personally not a fan of not knowing what everyone in the company is earning. Obviously, private firms can (by law) keep this information secret, but it doesn't help them in the long run, because word eventually leaks out. I worked for a company once where I made 30K and found out that a couple of (extremely lazy) coworkers in another department made well over 100K each. I quit that one as quickly as possible.

Guest's picture

I wonder if a man who used "feminine" techniques would get good or bad results. If a man asked for a raise by citing that his team leader encouraged him to, would be get the raise? Is it a matter of us playing to our gender strengths or are women pigeon-holed into a smaller number of strategies than men? Are feminine strategies just as effective for women as masculine strategies are for men?

Your article seems to be biased toward assuming that the masculine, aggressive methods are morally superior. They are not. Neither the aggressive nor the team-player methods (masculine nor feminine) are morally superior.

Andrea Karim's picture

I don't think that I ever brought morality into the picture - it's just that "aggressive" tactics are frequently encouraged by experts in the field of career advancement, and it was seen as women's fault for being so weak when they DIDN'T expressly ask for more pay.

It's not just the style of asking, either - it's the asking itself that women don't do.

Guest's picture

I think women would like to be as straight forward as men when it comes to negotiating, but the truth is that women (general historical meaning) have had to use different methods than men to achieve the same professional positions because of stereotypes that had to be overcome, and it is going to take a different approach to achieve the same monetary value until even more stereotypes are surmounted.

My psychological warfare explained:

A tactic I like to use reminds me of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" where the women came up with a plan and let the men think it was their idea.
Whenever I am about to make a major life change, I ask my boss for any words of wisdom and how he handled the financial aspect. I wrap up this little chat with a project status report or a quick, “I should get back to X, so that I can have it to Y by Z.” This quickly lets my boss know my financial focus and that I still consider work a priority.
Also, I know when I am scheduled to get a raise, and I proactively ask my boss for a job performance evaluation about a month beforehand. I make sure that he does 95% of the talking and only drop guidance questions or accomplishment tidbits such as, “Was the client pleased with X project?” “Since I was in charge of X, I wanted to make sure that it was done with the highest standards and efficiency”. At the end of the job performance evaluation I make the statement "I just want to make sure that I am meeting all company expectations and that you will let me know if there is something that I can improve upon. I will have been here for X years next month and I want to make sure I am reaching my maximum potential within the company."
These two things put me in a very good passive negotiating position. My boss already knows my needs and has already sold himself on my value to the company. Plus, I have let him know that I know that I am due for a raise soon without causing an awkward scenario. For me, this has guaranteed at least a 5% pay increase each time, but if it didn’t, I would have already made 90% of my justifications for a raise.
I haven’t tried it personally, but I have heard of others using a series of questions to get their boss to ask them what they think they deserve. Taking the initiative to ask for a performance evaluation should also motivate you to do some research beforehand to know where the market is or what you think would be an effective replacement in lieu of a paycheck increase (one-time bonus, extra vacation, company car, etc).

Remember, most people fail their first attempt, so try a practice interview with a friend or parent where they offer you a low increase and you negotiate for everything you are worth.

Guest's picture

Excellent response!! Practical advice! Thank you!

Andrea Karim's picture

Excellent tips, and thanks for sharing them!

Guest's picture

I think men still feel superior to women and want them to "know their place" (be happy with what you're given), and women are just naturally judgmental of each other (they say women dress for other women, not for men). Those issues may play a role in the inequality seen here.

This article made me think of Hillary Clinton.

Guest's picture

Andrea, I love your writing. Your thoughts parallel mine pretty much exactly. My view is that, ideally, you should already have a pretty good relationship with the person from whom you're asking for your raise, right? It seems to me that if you're honest with that person about what you want and what you think you're worth, he or she is not going to think you're overly aggressive because he or she knows you and your personality. Or, if you need to go to HR or someone else who you DON'T know to ask for a raise, at least you can get your boss, who you DO know, on your side and he or she can become an advocate for you with HR. Although, I have a really awesome and supportive female boss, so my perceptions might be skewed.

And, of course, this doesn't really apply to salary negotiations at a new job. Ugh. This whole thing really bums me out. I mean, it's good to know, but what a huge bummer. :-(

Andrea Karim's picture

I know, I was so depressed writing this that I actually left out a bunch of the topics that I wanted to discuss.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

This whole article is so true. At my first job I found a list of everyone's salaries, and all the women were paid less than the men in the same positions. I ended up going to my manager with the information and asked for an increase and got it, but then I also left the company right after that because I sort of stirred up a lot of angry feelings. With that information the company could probably have been sued for gender discrimination. I mean, even women with more experience were paid 20 to 30% less than the men. It's just more acceptable for men to ask for more, and they start off with more and that makes a huge difference over a lifetime. I have been telling every woman I know to ask for more pay in any situation, because all employers expect some negotiation, but the problem is most women don't ask at all.

Guest's picture

I think you're missing the real point.

Men often negotiate with a feeling that they honestly deserve what they're worth and that salary negotiation is sensible and to be expected. So they tend to be calm, rational and at ease.

Women? We've been beaten over the head with so many sterotypes that we don't know what to do. We're too weak, we're too aggressive, we're pushovers, we're bitches.

To hell with all that. Negotiating is part of getting a job. Be calm, be pleasant, be firm. Don't take it personally. It's a business deal. They offer, you tell them you've got a lot to bring to the company and you think you're worth a bit more. They say they can't pay you more; you ask about benefits. Offer and counter-offer. It's a business deal.

Andrea Karim's picture

Actually, I think the real point is that the "to hell with all that" attitude can actually have a negative impact on a woman's work relationships. We've been told recently by career and money gurus to throw caution to the wind and negotiate hard, but this study shows that that isn't yet a good tactic (perhaps not in every situation anyway).

Guest's picture

What a sobering study! This is a good reminder that straightforward negotiation strategies are unlikely to be as successful as sophisticated strategies that account for gender bias. I remember research such as this from graduate school but since that was years ago, the optimistic part of me had hoped we had made more progress than this. Thanks for posting this, Andrea.

Guest's picture

I agree with this but also have to caution. Despite loads of articles saying this won't happen I had a job offer revoked for asking for a very small increase in starting salary. I have successfully negotiated salaries in the past. However a job offer I received in August from a division of a major media company ended in disaster. I used my usual strategy said I was excited about the job offer but had hoped the salary would be a bit higher. I asked for an extra 3% that would bring the salary up to what I was led to believe was what I would be offered. I didn't decline just asked. I was thinking if I couldn't get this maybe there was some room for more vacation time or some other concession. Note the salary I was expecting/asked for was a 30% pay cut from my previous salary and a 50% cut in benefits overall from my previous position. I was willing to accept this since I had been self employed in a different industry for two years. The HR rep said she would see and called back two days later saying they were revoking the offer! I have researched this excessively and believe I may be the first person to ever have a job offer revoked for attempting a modest negotiation? I was devastated but am glad not to be working at a company that would revoke a candidates offer over a small negotiation.

Andrea Karim's picture

Wow, that is totally crazy! I doubt very much that you were the first to have an offer revoked, but it's completely galling either way, isn't it?

Guest's picture

This is the first time I have ever heard of this happening, and I feel awful for you.

On the bright side, though, the company might have done you a favor. The kind of company that revokes an offer when the candidate asks for a 3% increase(!) on a salary that's 30% lower than their previous position(!) seems like the kind of company I'd hate to work for.

Talk about better fish in the sea. This one was caught rotten!

Guest's picture

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