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.

10 thoughts on “When women negotiate: The double bind

  1. Thanks for posting this. In the NPR story I heard about this research (which aired on Monday and can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133599768/ask-for-a-raise-most-women-hesitate), I noticed this depressing note on how women can best succeed at such negotiation:

    “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.

  2. I meant to also include the next sentence, where Babcock says that this is “very depressing”! (sorry–I must have hit the post button accidentally, since I was adding that when my comment above appeared).

  3. I wonder how this applies to things like going up for tenure and promotion early. I’m guessing it’s the same story.

  4. When I wanted to be recommended for promotion to full professor (by-passing several colleagues who had been in rank longer than I had) my senior colleagues were taken aback and said that the normal procedure was for them to ask me and that they wanted to consult with the rest of the department about it. I’m not sure what they actually did, but I decided to go ahead with it and hope that they would support me– which they did.

  5. And I also wonder how often male vs. female professors apply for outside jobs (both prior to and just after tenure) that they have no intention of taking. This seems to be the best way to get a raise in academia. I personally have not done this (since I generally like my job). My own reasons for not doing this include: I don’t want to have to move (and uproot my life); I hate having to talk about my work and “sell myself” in a job market context; and I think it would be wrong to apply for a job that I don’t *really* want, just so that I can get my own instiution to make a counteroffer and pay me more.

    Refecting on these reasons makes me realize that it’s pretty clear that my own (and, I suspect, many academic women’s) reasons for not trying to get an outside offer are quite gendered. Does anyone know of research on this? I suspect that within academia, it might be one source (among many others!) of the gendered wage gap.

  6. An interesting pattern:
    Early research (i.e. this is a pattern that has not been rigorously analyzed yet) at my institution shows that when men get outside offers they tend to use them to negotiate for salary increases. When women get outside offers they tend to use them to negotiate for spousal accommodation for their partners and for career flexibility. So, here is another way that, in practice, the structure of the academy (the way that gender impacts the two career challenge and work-life balance) might have a negative impact on women’s lifetime earnings.

  7. Joan Williams, in her discussion of double binds points out that women who are assertive are faced with being judged as ‘deficiently feminine.’

    One survival strategy is to ‘femme up’ in negotiating situations: smile, use humor, frame the request as being for someone else’s good, in general ‘soften oneself and one’s message. Ick Ick Ick.

    But Williams also suggests “It is better to be a bitch than a doormat.”

    Suggestions for dealing with the double bind can be found at the Gender Bias Leaning Project (I’ve linked to it before, but I think it fits too well with this discussion not to repost).

  8. […] Dat klinkt zéér bevrijdend! Maar het weblog voegt er meteen aan toe: deze wijsheid kwam met de jaren. Op een moment in het leven van de blogger dat zij het zich kon veroorloven de reacties van omstanders te negeren, met een vast inkomen en een goede baan. Voor wie net begint aan haar loopbaan, blijft het belangrijk rekening te houden met stereotypen en de lastige situaties die dat voor vrouwen oplevert. Bijvoorbeeld als ze moeten onderhandelen over hun salaris….. […]

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