A recent article in the Harvard Business Review tackled the question of why women are more reluctant than men to negotiate salary offers at new jobs. Among other things, the discussion was prompted by a study of graduating MBA students showing that half of men had negotiated their initial job offers, while only one in eight women had done so. This general pattern holds true in survey studies of American workers more broadly, raising the question of why. Is it due to a difference in aggression or confidence? Is negotiation a skill that women are not as socialized in as men? Why do talented women leave money on the table?
Researchers have studied the problem, and the explanation turns out to have more to do with the way women are perceived and treated when they negotiate (as opposed to confidence or negotiation skill). When participants in studies are asked to rank their impressions of employees who negotiate pay/benefit packages compared to those who do not, a large number indicate that they are less willing to work with women after seeing her negotiate than a male counterpart.
This is what researchers describe as the “social cost” of negotiation, which is significantly greater for women. Obviously men can also overplay their hand and make a poor impression on negotiating counterparts. Yet most published studies show that the social price of salary negotiating is barely measurable for men, while it is a significant factor for women.
The evidence is thus convincing that women’s reluctance to push their claims is based on an accurate sense about the social environment of their workplace. The nervous response to the prospect of negotiating higher pay shows a honed intuition that self-advocating can likely result in a difficult social situation for them — more so than for men.
Yet in one interesting twist, the study showed that people respond quite positively when women negotiate aggressively on behalf of others. It’s only when negotiating for themselves — particularly in terms of pay — that women experience the backlash. Moreover, research shows that women perform better (e.g., negotiate higher salaries) when their role is to advocate for others as opposed to negotiating more for themselves. There was little to no change in perceptions of male behavior when advocating for themselves versus others.
Yet this doesn’t mean there is nothing women can do to help equalize their positions. Sheryl Sandberg recommends that women use a “relational account,” which can be summed up in her mantra “think personally, act communally.” This “relational” strategy involves asking for what you want while signaling to your negotiating counterpart that you are also re-affirming their perspective. Here’s an example of how it works:
“First, you want to explain to your negotiating counterpart why — in their eyes — it’s legitimate for you to be negotiating (i.e., appropriate or justified under the circumstances). Sheryl says that in her negotiations with Facebook, she told them, “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal team so you want me to be a good negotiator.” Sandberg wanted Facebook to see her negotiating as legitimate because, if she didn’t negotiate, they should be worried about whether they’d made the right hire.
Second, you want to signal to your negotiating counterpart that you care about organizational relationships. After pointing out that they should want her to be a good negotiator, Sheryl recounts saying, “This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” In other words, “I am clear that we’re on the same team here.”
The main ideas of the “I-We” strategy (or relational account) is to help your counterpart understand your negotiating as legitimate while at the same time conveying the value you place on organizational relationships.
Of course, this dynamic still fails to address the underlying structural problems of gender discrimination in the workplace. As Harvard Business Review contributor Hannah Riley Bowles pointed out, for many women, the very need to use “relational accounts” or “I-We” strategies can “make them feel like they are bending to unjust stereotypes or simply being inauthentic. I sympathize with that reaction. We were surprised while doing the research that it would be so hard to make the backlash effects go away.” However, Bowles goes on to remind readers that:
“every movement needs its idealists and pragmatists, and I am playing the pragmatist here. It is good advice for any negotiator – male or female — to ask for what they want in terms that their counterparts will perceive as legitimate and mutually beneficial. But for women, it is especially helpful because it unburdens them from the social costs of self-advocating. By sharing this research, I hope to shed light on this bias. Most people don’t want to discriminate. With more self-awareness as negotiators and evaluators, we can work to close this gender gap.”