When women negotiate: The double bind

If you are lucky enough to receive a job offer in higher education at this time of year, congratulations! I can attest that for me its rewards have outweighed its costs (except in the literal sense, alas, I still have $50,000 in student loans). It has become a truism since the first edition of Women Don’t Ask came out in 2003 that we disadvantage our entire lifetime earning possibilities by not negotiating at the outset; the authors cite a study that “a woman who routinely negotiates her salary increases will earn over one million dollars more by the time she retires than a woman who accepts what she’s offered every time without asking for more.” As a commenter recently wrote us to say, Women Don’t Ask, however correct its findings on the asking-gap,

resulted in what is now a widely-held misconception that needs to be corrected.  [It] was inferred [by readers]… that if women asked, they would get equitable treatment.  Of course, you can’t jump to that conclusion, since it doesn’t take into account that perhaps a woman’s request would not get the same reception as a comparable man’s.   However, the research was subsequently carried out, and it is stunning.  It’s worse than expected: not only are women’s requests not as well received, but women can be treated badly just for asking!  It can hurt to ask, if you’re a woman.  The research is not encouraging, because it’s not clear what advice ought to be given. However, in spite of that, knowing the research is useful to counteract blaming the victim of bias for not receiving equitable treatment.  The more recent research, it seems to me, has not gotten anything like the press attention the first misconception did. 

Having said that, our commenter, who prefers to remain anonymous, did direct our attention to an old Washington Post article which included some hope that there are strategies women can use:

However, a new set of experiments by Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles, who studies the psychology of organizations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, offers an entirely different explanation. Their study, which was coauthored by Carnegie Mellon researcher Lei Lai, found that men and women get very different responses when they initiate negotiations. Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women’s reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more –the perception was that women who asked for more were “less nice”. “What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not,” Bowles said. “They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.”

The drafty version online of Bowles and Babcock’s “Relational Accounts” offers more hope.  But plaster a smile on when you read it, ladies.  I hope you take away the conclusion, as I did, that a million dollars over one’s life is still worth asking for!  However, our negotiations are prima facie unwelcome without significant strategizing on our parts, including a script that includes expressing interest in relationships, community well-being, and the compensator’s point of view. 

Notably, the fact of men’s asking and the ways in which men asked made no difference in their reception on the part of either male or female compensators.