Disproving the Myth That Women Are Bad Negotiators

When it comes to asking for more money, “there’s a myth that women, by nature, don’t negotiate as hard or as well as men do,” Robin Ely, faculty chair of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, told me for a story I wrote for More magazine.

There’s a lot of research that has inadvertently fuels this myth: It’s true, for instance, that women tend to be more reluctant to negotiate salaries than men (a PayScale survey found that only 43 percent had ever asked for a raise in their field), that they endure a higher social cost when they do negotiate (employers tend to interpret them as “demanding”), and even they often receive less money than men when they do ask for a raise. It’s also true that this country — and most countries around the world — still report a gender pay gap, even controlling for industry, experience, and other compounding factors. It’s even true that the city of Boston is now offering free salary negotiation classes to every woman in the city — a move that could be translated as: women need more help than men to make their case at the negotiating table.

It’s not true that women are simply bad negotiators, or that there’s some innate female-only trait that makes them less skilled than men. As Ely says: “The research tells a more complicated story.”

Here’s the real story: Gender doesn’t determine negotiating skill. It’s the negotiating environment – and what you know before you sit at the table — that influences your ultimate negotiating success.

Research from Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen McGinn at Harvard Business School shows that when women know more details going into a salary negotiation — like the pay range or average salary, for instance — they can negotiate just as successfully as men can. Female and male business school graduates negotiated the same pay in industries where the salary range is transparent or widely-known, like consulting or investment banking. On the other hand, researchers see gender differences in performance when details for a particular job are more ambiguous.

What’s happening in those ambiguous environments to disadvantage women? According to Bowles and McGinn, those murky conversations make it more likely that “gender triggers — situational cues that prompt male-female differences in preferences, expectations, and behaviors — will influence negotiation behavior and outcomes.”

Leveling the playing field of pay negotiation, then, requires some combination of pay transparency and awareness on both sides of the negotiating table about what those “gender triggers” are.

Even if your workplace doesn’t have full salary transparency like Whole Foods or Buffer, that doesn’t mean you can’t discuss wage information with your colleagues — or jump on PayScale — to benchmark what you’re earning compared to others in your field. Remember that talking about pay with colleagues is, for the most part, completely legal (and necessary), even if it might seem taboo.

Talking about and understanding the effects of those “gender triggers” is also critical for you, and your boss. Negotiating in a competitive environment where the pay is determined by comparing someone’s performance relative to others, for example, tends to favor men. That’s because it can trigger the stereotype that men are inherently more competitive, or better at competing, than women. On the other hand, women tend to excel when they are negotiating on behalf of someone else because this activates the stereotype that women are inherently more caring.

Crucially, busting the stereotype that women are inferior negotiators isn’t just central to ensuring fair pay. It’s about setting yourself up for long-term success.

When the researcher Fiona Grieg studied whether a tendency to negotiate affects women’s career advancement, she found that indeed “gender differences in the propensity to negotiate partially explains why women are on a “slow elevator” to the top.” What’s more – those who negotiated and advanced weren’t necessarily the better performers.

How can you get off that slow elevator (or accelerate advancement for the women who work for you)?

If you’re an employer:

Be transparent. Know the facts about why pay transparency benefits everybody — and be aware of how gender bias, ambiguity and stereotypes can affect a negotiation. Remember — transparency doesn’t have to mean publishing everyone’s wages. It can also mean making clear what the salary range or band is for a particular position.

If you’re an employee:

Be prepared. Before you go into a negotiation, check out how much you should be earning by talking to your colleagues — male and female — and researching salaries of similar jobs on PayScale. Think about what you want out of the conversation: Is it just a raise that you’re after, or would you also like a flexible working arrangement, or more opportunities for advancement?

After all, as we’ve noted, negotiation is about much more than your paycheck. It’s a skill that allows you to gain access to equal amounts of time and opportunity, at home and at work, to do more of what you love. If you can negotiate, you are one step closer to living a fulfilling life. And that’s no myth.