A Harvard Professor Explains How Women Can Negotiate Better

Portrait of a businesswoman in office
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Hannah Riley Bowles, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has studied gender in the workplace extensively. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, she laid out the current state of research into differences between how men and women negotiate over salary, and how they are treated when they do. And these differences are sizable, she writes, since “in most published studies, the social cost of negotiating for pay is not significant for men, while it is significant for women.”

In other words, women sometimes lose, even when they win — they may get the pay raise they’re asking for, only to find their colleagues are less likely to want to work with them in the future because they’ve been deemed “difficult.” Therefore, Bowles writes, we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize women for being so much more reluctant than men to ask for raises: “Their reticence is based on an accurate read of the social environment.”

In a Skype conversation with Science of Us, Bowles explained why these effects are so persistent and made the case for setting aside idealism in negotiation settings.

How do you account for this difference in how men and women are treated at the negotiation table?
In addition to descriptive stereotypes, which are what we think men and women like or are good at — men like sports more than women, or so on — there are also prescriptive stereotypes, which cover what we consider attractive or appropriate behavior. There’s a prescriptive stereotype that women should be more concerned about others than themselves, that they should have this kind of selfless quality. And so when women advocate for others, they are fulfilling that feminine ideal — the mother bear protecting their young. We love it when women advocate for others and take care of others. Where it violates our expectations is when women try to take care of themselves, when they appear selfish.

So when it comes to these positive stereotypes, there’s some part of our brain that just likes it when people fit them.
Yeah. And we’re socialized into them, and we’re not always aware of them. We don’t necessarily have to embrace them for them to affect us — we just grow up with this ideal of women as caregivers. We don’t have clear data on the degree to which this is conscious or nonconscious, but I don’t think people do this intentionally.

These backlash effects when women negotiate sound annoyingly persistent, and it sounds like you and your colleagues have had trouble eliminating them in study settings.
We really thought that legitimate reasons for wanting a raise, such as getting an outside offer, should just make the whole thing go away. It should be legitimate, you know? But it just didn’t work. We tried multiple types of outside offers in our studies, even things like, “Oh, I couldn’t believe it, this offer just fell in my lap!” I was so surprised. We also ran one once where the woman was just super nice when she was asking. That did remove the social risk, but it didn’t turn the dial on people’s willingness to give her what she wanted. So we don’t think the answer is to just be really nice when negotiating.

What is the answer, then?
You have to do two things: come up with an explanation for why you’re negotiating that they will view as legitimate, and express what we call “concern for organizational relationships” — as I wrote, “signal to your negotiating counterpart that you care about organizational relationships.”

As you point out in your article, this could be painful for some women, since you’re effectively slipping into a pretty gendered stereotype. It ends up being not just about you and your value to the organization, but, again, a sense that above all you’re concerned with nurturing interpersonal relationships.
Well, I’m very sympathetic with that. and I’ve got a couple of responses. One is that I don’t think women should say things like that if doing so would mean a kind of loss of integrity. It’s not worth it. Secondly, we should embrace some pragmatism here. I raise this negotiation issue every time I speak with executive groups, and most of the women in executive groups are like, “Oh please, who cares? Just tell me what works.” For most of us, it isn’t that much of a stretch to take on the person’s perspective that you’re negotiating with and to really try to think hard about why what you’re asking for is legitimate.

It pisses me off that women have to be more strategic than men in these situations in order to avoid the backlash, but I find it less offensive to frame it a certain way: If you walk into a negotiation really prepared, with very good arguments for why the other side is going to think what you’re asking for is legitimate, and you signal that you’re taking their perspective — frankly, that’s just all good negotiating advice in general. So I don’t like that women have to prepare more, but all of this advice really comes down to just being a good negotiator.

Presumably, in the future, there will be more women managers, and that might help make all of this easier.
That ties into my other pragmatic argument against idealism in negotiating. There’s this chicken-or-the-egg issue in terms of the relationship between stereotypes and the social structure. And the primary theoretical argument is that stereotypes are derived from the roles men and women play in society. We expect women to be in staff and support and caregiving roles because we expect men to be in leadership roles — men dominate in positions of authority, and men dominate in the highest paying positions.

The more women that we get into top leadership positions and high-paying positions, the looser our associations will be between “man” and “leader,” and “man” and “high paid.” So I tell executive women, “You negotiate not just for yourselves. When you get into these positions, you’re loosening this notion that it’s only men who are highly paid and only men who get the leadership positions.” Madeline Albright had this great line in a graduation speech she gave, about how she never imagined she’d be secretary of State. “It’s not because I’m modest,” she said, “It’s because I’d never seen a secretary of State in a skirt.”

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

How Women Can Negotiate Better