‘Better negotiators’ are not the answer to resolving equal pay


When it comes to negotiating for higher pay, research says the rules are different for women than they are for men. (istock photo)

A political dustup in Texas over the matter of equal pay has led to not one but two cringe-worthy on-air moments for Republicans, who have been trying to change the conversation about the sensitivity of their party to women's issues.

In a recent interview, Cari Christman, the executive director of the Texas-based group Red State Women PAC, stumbled over her response to a question about the solution for resolving the pay gap, saying that women are "too busy" to pursue the issue through the courts. Then Texas GOP executive director Beth Cubriel had some advice of her own for all those busy women. "Men are better negotiators," Cubriel said in an interview that aired on the news show "Capital Tonight," suggesting there are other ways for women to resolve the pay gap than through state courts. "I would encourage women, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators."

The rationale offered in the first interview is downright odd; the advice in the second is exasperatingly oversimplified. However much truth there may be to the idea that women don't bargain enough, there's a reason for it: Women are held to a different set of rules when it comes to the art of the deal. To imply that negotiating alone would fix the problem overlooks years of research that shows a big reason why many women don't more enthusiastically embrace their bargaining power.

To wit, consider a piece from Slate that also ran this week. In "Negotiating While Female," the author examines the case of a candidate for an academic job whose attempt at bargaining backfired, as well as the research that shows how women's deal-making is treated differently. “We’re used to seeing women being less aggressive, more soft," it quotes researcher Linda Babcock as saying. "And when people don’t behave the way we expect them to, there are often negative consequences." Babcock's research has found that both men and women resist working with female colleagues who are known to have negotiated for more pay; other research found that successful female bargainers can suffer future costs, such as advancement opportunities.

While Lean In manifesto-billionaire Sheryl Sandberg has been implicated in urging women to ask for more, her book actually excels in laying out the trickiness of the problem and the delicate solution for women trying to ask for more. "Instead of blaming women for negotiating more," Sandberg writes, "we need to recognize that women often have good cause to be reluctant to advocate for their own interests because doing so can easily backfire." She cites research showing that women are indeed good negotiators -- especially when advocating on behalf of their company or their colleagues. But if the deal-making appears to be self-serving, that violates what researchers call gender norms.

As a result, the advice women really need is not simply to become better negotiators -- the presumption being to do it more like men -- but to approach negotiation as the complex art that it is for them. "It's like trying to cross a minefield backwards in high heels," Sandberg writes. She cites research suggesting women use "we" instead of "I" in negotiations, position their requests in the larger context of how it will benefit the common good, and provide an explanation for the request, however unfortunate it may be that women have to play by such rules. 

Even then, of course, fixing the gender pay gap will hardly be as simple as getting women to the bargaining table more often, or even getting them to bargain smarter. Recent research has added to the decades of data showing the many reasons the issue is so persistent. In addition to such explanations as outright discrimination or the amount of time women take out of the workforce to care for children, we can now add the fact that women's wages simply aren't rising and the problems with inflexible, long hours.

To resolve the gender pay gap, smarter bargaining may indeed play some role. But so will changes to how we define acceptable behavior by gender, corporate policies toward flexibility, good affordable child care and -- among many other things -- yes, even the courts.

Read also:

Tired of Lean In debates? We shouldn't be

Young women are closing the pay gap

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Tom Fox · March 18