Negotiation Frustration

Who says women don’t negotiate?

Two women with a speech bubble between them showing hurdles, as for a track meet.

For decades, a closet industry of books and workshops has promised to make women better negotiators and help close the gender pay gap. But new research by Professor Laura Kray shows that believing women don’t ask for higher pay is not only outdated, but it may be hurting pay equity efforts.

“Continuing to put the blame on women for not negotiating away the gender pay gap does double damage, perpetuating gender stereotypes and weakening efforts to fight them,” says Kray, the Ned and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership.

Last year, women earned about 22% less than men, on average. But broken down by income level, the gap for middle- and lower-wage women has decreased over the past 20 years while the gap for those with higher salaries—where there is often more room for negotiation—has increased.

Women MBA grads earn 88% of what men make after finishing their degree but only 63% of what men make 10 years later, past research by Kray and others has found.

Women Do Ask

The researchers’ survey of a nationally representative sample confirmed the perception that women negotiate less than men and are less successful when they do. Yet when Kray and her co-authors analyzed a survey of students graduating from a top MBA program between 2015 and 2019, they found that significantly more women than men reported negotiating their job offers—54% versus 44%.

The researchers then delved into a 2019 alumni survey of 1,900 MBA grads and found, again, that the women earned 22% less than men. But other than women’s lower pay, the only differences that emerged along gender lines were that more women than men said they had attempted to negotiate—and more women reported being turned down.

“Continuing to put the blame on women for not negotiating away the gender pay gap does double damage, perpetuating gender stereotypes and weakening efforts to fight them.”

Revisiting past conclusions

Kray and her co-authors also used an updated statistical approach to revisit a 2018 meta-analysis of studies on gender and negotiations. Focusing on nine studies published from 1982 to 2015 that measured gender differences in initiation of salary negotiations, they found no difference overall. But when they looked at changes over time, they found that men did report higher rates of negotiating versus women early in the era. The gender difference appeared to disappear around 1994 and reversed beginning around 2007. The trend has continued to grow since then, Kray says.

Many factors may have contributed to women’s greater assertiveness over the past two decades, including the “lean-in” movement sparked by Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name. But the downside of such messages has been to “blame the victim,” Kray says—putting the onus on women to fix the pay gap by working more and trying harder.

Another experiment exploring attitudes about the pay gap’s causes and support for solutions found that people who believed more strongly that women’s lower negotiation rates fueled the pay gap for MBA graduates were less likely to support salary-history bans and more likely to justify the current system.

“Negotiating for pay or promotions is clearly beneficial, and there’s room for everyone to do more negotiating,” Kray says. “But it’s time to end the notion that women don’t ask.”