Why women can’t negotiate away the gender pay gap

To mark Equal Pay Day, we’re featuring new work by Prof. Laura Kray, an expert on gender and negotiations, along with Margaret Lee, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership. Equal Pay Day was created in 1996 by the National Committee on Pay Equity to mark extra days that American women would have to work, on average, to earn what male counterparts earned last year.

Why women can't negotiate away the gender pay gap

Professor Laura Kray has doubled down on helping women develop ace negotiation skills: She’s spent much of her career studying gender dynamics in negotiations, and has also taught many hundreds of MBA students and seasoned women executives how to negotiate like pros.

Laura Kray
Prof. Laura Kray

But when it comes to strategies to close the stubborn pay gap that has women earning about 80 percent of what men earn (a statistic that varies by race/ethnicity and how it’s measured), she takes issue with telling women they can simply negotiate their way out of it. That not only puts the onus on women rather than the systemic issues that keep their salaries low, but it perpetuates stereotypes that may not be true, she said.

“We know that people who negotiate get more than those who don’t, but that’s not a ‘women’s issue’—two-thirds of men don’t negotiate,” said Kray, the Warren E. and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership. “Women are asking, but they’re not always getting what they ask for, and they’re more likely to be told things that aren’t true.”

Kray has long peeled back the surface to look at the deeper structural issues that lead to gender inequality, from implicit bias to lack of transparency to inflexible mindsets. Recently, she’s uncovered a new front in the pay gap battle: team size. Kray and Margaret Lee, a postdoctoral research fellow sponsored by the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL), are examining how deep-seated biases about leadership may lead to men being put in charge of larger teams than equally qualified women, and being paid more because of it.

Since supervising more people can be more work and indeed justify a higher salary, it’s important to unravel the reasons why men manage larger teams and how that drives higher salaries, she said. Combined with other findings, this new line of research offers another layer of insight into the causes of the gender pay gap—and possible solutions.

“We’re most interested in the structural issues, and the psychological processes of decision makers that produced them,” Kray said, at a recent EGAL presentation on her work with Lee.

Do women ask—and do they get?

Kray points to a 2017 study by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In that asked 70,000 respondents across 222 companies whether they had asked for a raise or negotiated for a promotion. While the percentages varied slightly by race, there were no significant differences between men and women overall.

She and Lee took a closer look at how this plays out among Berkeley Haas MBA students. Analyzing the results of a negotiation exercise completed by 346 MBA students who were asked to structure their own job offer, she found that the women did not sell themselves short, and asked for virtually identical base salaries as men.

In a more disturbing finding from a 2014 paper, Kray looked at the results of a sales negotiation exercise completed by pairs of 298 MBA students, where one acted as seller and one as buyer, with opportunities to lie or misrepresent the truth. Men reported they had lied to female partners in 24 percent of cases, versus just 3.4 percent of negotiations with another man—in other words, seven times as often. And although women reported lying less overall, they also were slightly more likely to lie to other women as to men.

Based on that and other experiments in the paper, Kray concluded that female negotiators are perceived as less competent and more gullible than male negotiators, which leads to them being lied to or manipulated more often—another reason why she believes the problem goes far beyond teaching women to negotiate.

“In this classroom simulation, MBA women were not getting the same treatment in negotiations, regardless of whether they were asking or not,” Kray said. “It’s important to explore if—and how—this plays out in organizational contexts.”

Team size and salary

In their new work, Kray and Lee looked at the results of a Berkeley Haas alumni survey of almost 2,000 full-time professionals who graduated between 1994 and 2014. Respondents had between two and 18 years post-MBA work experience, with an average of seven years. The researchers found that while men’s base salaries were about 8 percent higher than women’s, it’s in the extras—bonuses, share values, and options, which tend to not be tracked as publicly as salaries—where the men’s salaries dwarfed the women’s. These MBA women’s overall compensation averaged about $290,000, or about 66 percent of men’s $439,000 average.

That echoes findings from a recent study by the Forté Foundation, revealing that the salary gap is even higher for MBA women than for women overall (and highest for minority women), and that it only increases with seniority. A 2010 study of Chicago Booth MBA grads found a similar result: thirteen years out, women earned 56 percent of what men earned overall (they traced a large part of that to the career interruptions of motherhood, but found at least 10 percent of it to be unexplained).

Analyzing the Berkeley Haas alumni survey, which contained information on direct reports, Kray and Lee became interested in whether team size is contributing to pay disparities.

They compared the number of subordinates men and women reported managing and found men averaged 11 direct reports while women averaged six. After controlling for multiple factors such as experience and industry, that was reduced to an average of 10 for men and slightly less than 8 for women, but still significant. They then conducted further analysis parsing out team size from salary, and concluded that team size did account for a portion of the pay gap—above and beyond other individual job characteristics.

The researchers then delved further into why men are given larger teams. They conducted surveys of Berkeley Haas undergraduates, and also of subjects recruited through an online platform, and found no differences in men’s and women’s preferences on the number of people they’d feel comfortable managing. Even so, both groups said they preferred male managers for large teams, and female managers for smaller teams.

In another study, they found that people were more likely to associate stereotypically male attributes (e.g. assertive, forceful, aggressive, demanding) with leaders of larger teams, and associate stereotypically feminine attributes (e.g. patient, polite, kind) with leaders of smaller teams. They also found that people do believe that leaders of large teams earn more than leaders of small teams.

Kray and Lee are now more deeply pursuing research on why a team-size bias exists—based not only on stereotypes of who is a more appropriate leader but also on how complex and challenging the jobs of leading teams of various sizes are believed to be. The ultimate goals is to examine how implicit biases about team size justify part of the difference in men’s and women’s pay, and especially the gap that widens with seniority.

What can women do?

In the meantime, Kray—who also serves as faculty director for EGAL—advises women entering a job negotiation to pay close attention not only to their salary and bonuses, but also to how many direct reports they’ll be managing.

“For women who are aiming to maximize their earnings, it is important to make sure they have the headcount to justify what they’re asking for,” she said. “My advice for these aspiring women is: Don’t overlook team size as a factor that could make a difference in your paycheck, especially in the long run.”

EGAL Founding Director Kellie McElhaney said Kray and Lee’s new research is exactly the type of work she wanted the center to support when it launched in 2017.

“This works on two critically important paths: Dispelling long-held and damaging myths that are used to justify inequitable behavior, like unequal pay, and introducing new explanations that need further research, like team size,” McElhaney said.