Don't Just Ask: Why Women Don't Negotiate

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One of the reasons that women are paid less than men is that they don't negotiate.  The advice that follows is usually, "Well, negotiate!"  But in fact, women don't negotiate for very good reason, as Kevin Drum points out:


I apologize for sticking around, but there's a reason. I've run into this before myself, and have always told women "Just ask! The worst that can happen is that they say no." But that's not actually the case. Here's a bit of research on the subject:
 
Their study...found that women's reluctance [to negotiate] was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did...."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."
So listen up, boys: there's a reason women don't negotiate as hard as men. Several of them, in fact. But one of these reasons is that men treat them shabbily when they do. So knock it off. Tell the women you love to negotiate the same as you would, and when they do, don't hold it against them. OK?

When I was in business school, I learned about a case that had been run experimentally.  I may hash some of the details, but the gist is that half the classes that used it read about "John" facing a tough management problem, while the other half read about "Jane" facing the same problem.  No detail other than the names had been changed.


But what a difference a name makes!  "John" was a strong, thoughtful leader making tough choices about what was best for his group.  "Jane" was a headstrong bitch who was wildly overstepping her authority and generally making a mess of things.

No woman is unaware of these dynamics.  When I'm in group interviews or meetings, frequently I will start talking at the same time as a man starts talking.  Almost always, I shut up and let the man finish talking, and hope I'll get a chance to ask a question later.  Over time, two things have become clear to me:

1.  The men are completely unaware that this is happening.  They are not hostile or trying to shut women down;  perhaps that happened in yesteryear, but I don't think it happens now. They just do not see that when the verbal space is contested, they keep talking, and the woman almost always stops first.

2.  For their own personal good, women should stop first, because if they keep talking, they do not strike a telling blow for feminism; they get labeled as an unbearably pushy and difficult sort of person.

3.  In the comments to this post, there will be at least some men accusing me of overreacting, not knowing what I am talking about, and/or making unfair demands*.   There will also probably be at least one woman who says that this has never happened to her; her experience will be taken as representative by the men making the above complaints, while mine is dismissed as special pleading.

Someone will also probably hypothesize that I am, in fact, an unbearably pushy person.  But this gets it backwards.  I am indeed quite opinionated, very fond of talking, and tolerably thick-skinned, and I have already proven willing to bend gender norms at least enough to work in a field that's moderately strongly male-identified.  If I am making a conscious decision to shut up every time a man and I start talking at the same time, then other women are engaging in even more extreme forms of self-censorship.

I am sure that none of the students who read that case thought to themselves "women should not take charge".  They just felt that there was something wrong and inappropriate about a woman who did.  Differential gender standards are rarely distilled these days, as actual abstract standards that people are willing to name--or indeed, even conscious of believing.  They are merely applied consistently in every individual case.

I don't think it's true that women can't negotiate.  But I do think that they have to do it differently from the way men do.


* Note: I have not made any demands.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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