POSTED BY MARIA KONNIKOVA
Nazareth didn’t hesitate to do just that: W wrote that the college promptly let her know that she was no longer welcome. “The institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you,” the terse reply concluded. “We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.”
What had W done wrong? Perhaps nothing, at least according to the advice to “lean in” that women have become accustomed to hearing. “This is how I thought negotiating worked,” W wrote. “I just thought there was no harm in asking.” (It’s entirely possible that there were factors at play not covered in the leaked correspondence—a Nazareth representative told me that the college was unable to comment on a personnel issue.)
In a survey of graduating professional students, Linda Babcock, of Carnegie Mellon University, found that only seven per cent of women attempted to negotiate their initial offers, while fifty-seven per cent of the men did so. We see those dire statistics and think that women are, in a sense, self-sabotaging. They don’t ask for the same compensation and benefits as men, so they can’t rightly be expected to receive them. But is it really the case that the disadvantage stems from not asking? Sheryl Sandberg, the author of “Lean In” and the chief operating officer of Facebook, acknowledges the difficulties of negotiation, but nonetheless urges women to push forward (“I negotiated hard,” she writes) and <href=”#v=onepage&q=%2522so%20please%20ask%20yourself%3a%20what%20would%20i%20do%20if%20i%20weren’t%20afraid%3f%20and%20then%20go%20do%20it.%2522&f=false”>to do what they would do if they weren’t afraid. But, had W spoken to psychologists who study the role of gender in negotiation alongside more popularly rendered edicts from women at the top of their fields, she might have been less surprised at the outcome.
Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, has been studying gender effects on negotiation through laboratory studies, case studies, and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields. She’s repeatedly found evidence that our implicit gender perceptions mean that the advice that women stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations may not have the intended effect. It may even backfire.
In four studies, Bowles and collaborators from Carnegie Mellon found that people penalized women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. The effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate. Even women penalized the women who initiated the conversation, though they also penalized the men who did so. They just didn’t seem to like seeing someone ask for more money.
In a follow-up study, Bowles asked participants whether they themselves would negotiate in the given scenario—that is, they were now the job candidate and not the evaluating manager. The women, for the most part, said no. They were nervous that the conversation would turn against them. “Women are more reticent to negotiate than men, for good reason,” Bowles says.
It’s not that men are immune from being seen as tough or unlikeable when they make aggressive demands. Attempting to negotiate can make anyone seem less nice, Bowles repeatedly found. But it’s only women who subsequently suffer a penalty: people report that they would be less inclined to work with them, be it as coworkers, subordinates, or bosses. The effect is especially strong, Bowles has found, when people observe women who engage in salary negotiations. “Money in particular seems to be a hot one,” she says.
One reason for the bias may be that the person hiring—or giving a raise—values different qualities in male and female colleagues. Women are potentially being evaluated according to different criteria, even if the person doing the evaluation doesn’t realize it. Julie Phelan and her colleagues at Rutgers have found that, when women are already in the hiring or promotion process—that is, when their credentials have already been screened and they are in the interview phase—the focus shifts away from their competence and toward their social skills. That effect is absent for male candidates.
W’s experience conforms to that interpretation, according to the blog post. In the short e-mail rescinding her job offer, the main rationale for the decision was based on her ability to fit in at the college and not her qualifications. (Those, presumably, were fully in order, given that she had received the offer in the first place). Referring to W’s requests, the letter said, “It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.” In other words, your goals—as we have interpreted them—don’t seem to mesh with ours, at least now that you’ve pushed back on our offer.
Women who don’t negotiate may not be refraining because they are shy. They may, instead, be anticipating very real attitudes and very real reactions that are borne out, time and again, in the lab and in the office. Often, leaning in has an even worse effect than saying nothing. Had W voiced excitement and held onto her doubts, she would now be Nazareth-bound.
It happens, too, in situations that are removed from the negotiating table: when, despite the odds, women find themselves in leadership positions. Female leaders who try to act in ways typically associated with male leaders—assertive, authoritative, directive—are seen far more negatively than males. In the modern world, we’d like to think ourselves above such base stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean that discrimination goes away; it means that it shifts from the explicit to the implicit realm. “It’s the idea of second-generation feminism,” Bowles says. “We have these culturally ingrained ideas about what we consider attractive or appropriate, ideas of what’s O.K. for men or women. And when women violate it, people have an aversive response.” The result is that discrimination becomes more nuanced: we can’t point to overt things like women not having the right to vote. We can, it’s true, point to things like pay gaps—but, because they are inherently more ambiguous, it’s much more difficult to say that discrimination has taken place. Maybe she really didn’t push hard enough. Maybe she is a bit less qualified. Many women (and men) who ask for raises, after all, just aren’t quite good enough to get them. Maybe he did make a better case.
Bowles recalls one recent study, from the University of Pennsylvania, that observed the less obvious forms that implicit gender bias can take in the workplace. It looked at a commission-based profession—stockbrokers—where the model has long been eat-what-you-kill, and tried to see why, even in such a seemingly merit-based system, women made less than men. “They did a very careful analysis of what happened when these brokers left the firm,” Bowles says. “How were their portfolios allocated? They found that the more profitable elements of the portfolio were given to men and not to women.” The thing is, those doing the allocation may not even have done it on purpose. But they were disproportionately male, and people simply find it easier to get along with others who are more like themselves—and may reward them accordingly.
One new study even suggests that some of the discrimination effects in the workplace aren’t the result of bias against women so much as bias in favor of men. It doesn’t matter what personal characteristic we’re talking about—gender, race, social background. Like attracts like. In-groups reward their own.
The situation is infuriating in many ways, and simply bringing attention to the issues is not enough. Awareness is good, but when problems have slipped from the explicit to the implicit, from the unassailable to the ambiguous, knowing that the effect exists isn’t sufficient to change behavior. Bowles cites an ongoing collaboration between the University of Virginia and George Mason University, where psychologists are finding that telling people about implicit stereotypes may have a perverse negative effect. “They are actually more inclined to use the stereotypes in their judgments and decisions when you bring them up,” Bowles says.
One way to start solving the problem can come from the institutional side, in the form of increased transparency around hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions. “What we’ve found is that ambiguity facilitates the potential for gender effects and for stereotyping people. It leads people to preconceived notions,” Bowles says. “And transparency has the opposite effect. It’s a healthy way of changing things without having to change the world.” If a female leader is going to earn less than her male predecessor, tell her why that choice has been made.
The final piece of advice is for would-be powerful female leaders themselves: be aware that, at least until social attitudes shift radically, you are not immune from these effects. That doesn’t mean not negotiating but, rather, being strategic about it. “We’ve found that you need to offer an explanation for your demands that gives a legitimate reason that the other side finds persuasive,” Bowles says. “You need to signal concern for the broader organization: ‘It’s not just good for me; it’s good for you.’ ”
Still, in a 2012 study, Bowles and Babcock found that a team-oriented frame could indeed help—but only if used on its own. In their experiment, used in combination with a legitimate justification for the request (for instance, that you have another job offer on the table), it seemed likely to backfire for participants.
No social-science study can tell a woman what to do in any particular negotiation. The variables are too complex. And to suggest that women should be wary of asserting themselves in the workplace would be like telling Rosa Parks not to sit in the front of a bus. But, for now, any negotiation in which gender is involved remains a careful, precarious balancing act.
Photograph by Peter Marlow/Magnum.