Science and Medicine: Gender Differences

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam, who also writes the Department of Human Behavior column, was online Monday, July 30 at Noon ET to discuss gender differences when it comes to asking for pay raises, resources or promotions.

He was joined by Hannah Riley Bowles, an associate professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who studies the psychology of organizations.

A transcript follows.

Read more in the story: Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling (Post, July 30).


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to the online discussion of the story today on gender differences in negotiating. Very briefly, the story makes the argument that one reason men and women may be different when it comes to asking for promotions or more money or resources is not because they are innately different, but because the social environment punishes women who seek to negotiate more than it punishes men who negotiate. The story explores new research by Harvard's Hannah Riley Bowles and others that explores whether gender differences in negotiating may be tied to accurate and reasonable expectations of how negotiation will be perceived. Dr Bowles joins us today for this online chat.

Besides questions about the research, we would also welcome personal stories and anecdotes about your own experiences with negotiating. Have there been times you have avoided negotiating because you were worried how it would be perceived. And have there been particularly effective negotiation techniques you have learned that you can share with all of us?

I would also be happy to take questions (toward the end of the chat) on my weekly Department of Human Behavior column; today's piece is about the role of counterfactual reasoning in President Bush's decisions on the war in Iraq. You can read this column and all the previous columns at


Alexandria, Va.: Curious to know whether the hypothetical jobs in the application scenario were in themselves gender biased.

e.g. male= executive, technical or math and science;

female= administrative clerical, care provider services;

neutral= lower management, retail, cashier.

Did the job influence whether it would be more acceptable to negotiate wages and benefits? Amy

Hannah Riley Bowles: Great question. In the first study we ran, the job was a summer internship in a commercial bank. In the second series of studies, the job was a junior management position (neutral, as you describe).

The key result, though, was that women were at a disadvantage (i.e., evaluators were less inclined to work with them) if they attempted to negotiate, but men were not. So, even if there were a general preference for men (which there was not), it would not explain the effect.

Thanks for clarifying.


Shankar Vedantam: Dr Bowles, if I could start us off with a basic question, could you tell us a little about what we know about gender differences when it comes to negotiating. Are women always less likely than men to negotiate?

Hannah Riley Bowles: Thank you for asking. No, it is not the case that women are always less likely to negotiate than men. Indeed, we show in this research that women were as likely as men to negotiate with a woman, which was a situation in which they both faced a similar social risk from negotiating.

One of the motivations of the research was to show that women's reticence to negotiate is a response to the social situation, as opposed to some form of personality difference.


Shankar Vedantam: I want to follow up on the excellent point on what can be done to reduce the effect of these negotiation imbalances. Dr Bowles, could you talk a little bit about what prospective employers and employees can do to make the system work more fairly? Obviously, these effects are largely happening at a level that is not conscious -- men are presumably not telling themselves deliberately to "punish" women who negotiate -- so what can be done to lower the risk of this happening?

Hannah Riley Bowles: As one of the earlier commenters suggested, making salary and other types of compensation information more transparent is one thing that organizations can do to remedy potential imbalances. Our previous research has shown that gender differences in negotiation diminish when the negotiators have a clear sense of what the appropriate standards are for a negotiated outcome.


Annapolis, Md.: As an over the hill male, I really don't see any differences in promotions where I work due to gender. As far as salary, I don't know. I think that my company has done a good job of promoting competent people of both genders, and it seems that the percentages of promotions reflect the workforce.

In my family, though, my wife is re-emerging from a 20 year sabbatical from the federal gov't, and neither of us expect her to be placed at a position equal to people who didn't take time off.

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, absolutely, research shows that women who take extended breaks from employment tend not to return to work at the same level. This is reasonable, as you suggest, because their skills and experience level are not the same as someone who has stayed in the workforce. Consistent with this, women who have children and who take time off from work tend to make less money than women who do not have children and stay in the workforce.

Shankar Vedantam: Two points to add to this. One, research studies have also compared apples to apples -- men and women who have worked fulltime and not taken time off, and found there is a gender differential in pay. The story today cites the figure of 11 percent.

Second, it is very important to remember that while there are group differences, that does not mean this will describe the experience of EVERY man and every woman. There are a wide range of men and a wide range of women, and people in general find negotiation difficult and awkward. So we should be cautious about applying this research directly to any one situation; what it does tell us that is very useful from a policy perspective, however, is about broad patterns of behavior, and broad differences between men as a group and women as a group.


Zionsville, Ind.: One of the great business tenets state

"It's not what you know but who you know!" This seems counter productive to rational thinking unless you value the tribe more than you value productivity.

Since the majority of positions of power are owned by men, isn't it more likely that men who know men are at a severe advantage for passing on raises and even if you report to a woman, she will eventually have to seek budget approval from a man who might be less inclined to pass on higher budgeted salaries to aggressive women? Under this scenario, men working for women are worse off than working for men thereby perpetuating the cycle.

Seems to me the system works better if salaries are not hidden.

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, research shows that men tend to be more connected (i.e., have more ties) and more closely connected (i.e., have friendship and work relationships) with other men at work than do women. And, as you point out, the people controlling resources, such as compensation, are more likely to be men than women. So, that puts women at a disadvantage relative to men, if we assume that it's easier to negotiate with someone you know.

With regard to your point about salary information not being hidden, yes! In a different series of studies, we showed that (controlling for job function, previous salary, work experience, job preferences, etc.), there were no gender difference in the salaries that graduating MBAs negotiated IF they had good information about what appropriate salaries were for them in that industry. In industries in which the MBAs did not have good information about appropriate salary levels, men negotiated salaries that were $10,000 higher than the salaries negotiated by women.

Thanks for your comments.


Seven Sisters School: Thanks for chatting with us. Did your data include information about participants' undergraduate education? As a student at an elite women's college, my school makes a conscious effort to prepare women to be assertive in their professional and private lives. Did you find that these women from single-sex institutions were more likely to ask for raises and promotions than their coed colleagues?

Hannah Riley Bowles: That is an interesting hypothesis. We did not have that type of information. However, we have little reason to believe that women from women's colleges would be evaluated differently than other women after attempting to negotiate. The purpose of the study was to show that women were being more restrained than men about negotiating when the social costs to them for doing so were higher than they were for men. So, it's not so much about being confident or aggressive as opposed to reading the social cues within the situation.


Washington, D.C.: One conclusion from the study you discussed is that discrimination explains the salary gap (because male bosses are put off by female employees who demand raises). However, I also read elsewhere that there is no salary gap between men and women who were never married. If that is true, doesn't this suggest the salary gap shows up only among married workers and perhaps it is because married women are less attached to their jobs (because of competing responsibilities - children, etc) than men?

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, women with children, in particular, are more likely to work fewer hours and fewer years than their male peers. This contributes to a relative lack of work skills and experience that leads women to be paid less than men -- rightfully. However, gender differences in skills and experience do not fully explain gender differences in compensation. For instance, in an earlier study, we analyzed the job negotiations of graduating MBAs. We had controls on the job function/industry, number of years of work experience, previous salary, relevant work experience, dual career concerns, and more. We found a $5,000 difference overall (favoring men) in the salaries that the men and women negotiated. However, we also found that in those industries in which the salary standards were clear (about 70% of sample) there was no gender difference. In the approximately 30% of the sample in which the salary standards were unclear, there was a $10,000 difference in salaries negotiated (again favoring men over women). We showed in subsequent experimental studies that gender differences in negotiated outcomes tend to decline the less ambiguity there is about the appropriate standards for negotiated agreement. So, in sum, we are offering potential explanations for some of the unexplained effects of gender on compensation.


San Jose, Calif.: Is it at all possible that we have a cultural meme subconsciously in place from as far back as the 50's about getting raises? The old version, expressed in countless 50's and 60's sitcoms and cartoons, was of a guy bursting into his bosses office, pounding his fist on the table, and demanding a raise. Do people in the system (managers, employees) still have a residual idea that it should be an aggressive confrontation, even though no one pounds their fists on desks anymore (and maybe never did)?

Shankar Vedantam: I think you may be onto something here. The other researcher I interviewed who was central for this article, Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon University, made this point explicitly to me. Both men and women probably can learn something from negotiation techniques that are designed to be cooperative rather than confrontational. So the "moral of this story" really runs on two separate tracks -- one, we can teach both men and women how to be more effective negotiators and, two, we can ask institutions not to punish people who do ask for more.


RICHMOND: my opinion/experience is that a lot of negotiating power is developed through work confidence, which is highly influenced by having had a good mentor as one develops professionally.

Those who are confident and successful had good mentors who showed them how to act professionally, including negotiating.

Others who were very successful in college, but less so in the professional world, didn't have mentors who showed them the ropes.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question. I think you are absolutely right on the importance of mentorship. And I think the idea that people with good mentors might be better negotiators is plausible, although we should want to have data to back up our intuitions.

But I do want to toss out an idea that came up during my interviews for the story. One of the reasons people might hesitate to negotiate a better starting salary might well be that they recognize that the person they are talking with is also a potential mentor. Is it better to get this person to give you 5 percent more, but have them feel alienated toward you, or settle for 5 percent less, but keep open the possibility that they could be a mentor? Even if you look at this in purely financial terms, it could be entirely rational to choose the lower salary if that will give you a mentor.

Of course, the bottomline is that people should not have to let themselves be rolled over in order to get mentors. In other words, while it may be reasonable for job applicants not to negotiate, it makes for bad policy for an institution to set up a situation where people are penalized for asking their superiors for what they want and need. Indeed, I think there is evidence that such disparities lead to lower morale, which can hurt your bottomline, besides the fact that they are unfair.


West Palm Beach, Fla.: We're in a budget crunch where I work ... raises were low last year, and every expense is being scrutinized. Yet, I want to ask for an increase in pay. While I know I can tout my accomplishments and explain my value to the company, I also know I am going to be countered with, "Well, you know we're watching the budget ... " How do I get past that hurdle to keep the conversation going?

I'm 30, a woman and am in an industry that's in a state of flux. Thanks

Hannah Riley Bowles: That is a great question. This issue of how women can ask is the focus of our current research. In all candor, we have not yet come up with any risk-free options. Here are some ideas, though, that are suggested by other research:

(1) Women tend to be more persuasive when they act both socially attuned (e.g., friendly, other-oriented) as well as competent. So, communicating those two sides of your personality when you ask, is probably helpful.

(2) In general, having an outside offer is considered to be helpful in negotiation, not simply as a threat but because it validates your "market value." References to outside offers can be socially risky, though. So, you probably would want to make clear that you are offering that information as a potential benchmark as opposed to a threat.

(3) If you don't have an outside offer, other information on what people are paid in your similar position/industry could also be useful in legitimating your request.

(4) Finally, relationships matter. You may want to seek advice from people you know well about how to raise the issue, and with whom you should speak. Ideally, you could find someone to help advocate for you.

I hope that's helpful.


Deborah, Takoma Park, Md.: Are there studies out there that show that women are generally (not just with financial factors) more risk averse than men?

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, there is research to suggest that women are more risk averse than men, but most of it is done with money-related studies. At least one study found that men were more risk averse than women, when the lottery (risk decision) was framed in terms of what you would lose rather than what you would gain. Rachel Croson and Uri Gneezy have reviewed this literature.


Beltsville, Md.: Comment: It is my observation, based on my own son and his playmates, that boys learn negotiation at around ages 8-10 by trading Pokemon, Baseball and Magic cards. I've seen my son engrossed for hours with a group of friends, haggling over their trades. Girls don't participate or have an equivalent activity.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question. I will turn this over to Dr Bowles in a moment to ask if she has any data that speaks to this question. But I had two thoughts about this myself.

One, I get very nervous when people use their personal experiences as a window into scientific observation. Obviously, everyone does this, but if there is one thing science has taught us, it is the virtue of methodically collecting data. That process itself can tell us that our observations were either not true or not entirely true.

Second, I see little reason why the social barriers to negotiating -- the idea that women who ask for more are looked down at more compared to men who ask for more -- might not apply to children as well. Children have social environments, too, and they respond to their social environments, often in ways that are more exquistitely sensitive than adults. There has been a lot of research looking at how social attitudes form, and one of the disconcerting findings in this arena is how early these impressions form. Keeping my own admonition in mind, of course, we should wait to see if there is data on this question.

Hannah Riley Bowles: I agree with your response, Shankar.


VA: What's the point of this? 70 percent of all undergraduates are women.

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, it is the case that women are highly competitive with men in terms of educational investment. Gender differencs in compensation are not explained by education gaps. The purpose of this is to explain why women are sometimes less likely to try to negotiate for higher compensation than are men. And, gender differences in the propensity to negotiate may help to explain gender differences in compensation.


River City: I would assume the opposite of what the women's-only college poster asserted. I'd think that women educated WITH men would be more comfortable communicating with and negotiating with men. I'd assume women educated in women-only colleges DON'T have much experience communicating with men and would be worse at negotiating.

Hannah Riley Bowles: There was one study done by a woman named, Maura Belliveau, that showed that women from women's colleges received lower starting salary offers than women from similarly prestigious co-ed colleges. Her theory is that employers presume women from co-ed colleges have information on starting salaries from their male peers, and so they have to offer them more. So, one potential advantage of a co-ed education is better information on what men and women are paid for different types of positions. As I noted before, when men and women are working from the same standards, we do not find significant gender differences in negotiated outcomes.

One more note on this: Research shows that men tend to compare themselves to men, and women tend to compare themselves to women. This tendency to compare oneself to same-gender others may contribute to gender differences in compensation, because men tend to be compensated more than women.


NYC, NY: During some recent upheaval in my workplace, I (female) negotiated a very large raise from my employer (male) - I had already thought about how the fact that I don't much like him and he doesn't much like me made it easier for me to work the situation to my advantage and ask for the raise, but I was saddened to realize upon reading this article that I probably wouldn't have been as likely or able to take advantage of the situation had I actually cared about my boss's opinion of me. Boss's gender wouldn't have made a difference if I actually wanted the person to like me...

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, our research suggests that the boss' gender wouldn't matter for women. Both male and female evaluators in our studies were less inclined to work with a woman who attempted to negotiate as compared to one who did not. Sadly, as you suggest.


Bethesda, Md.: Is there a difference in negotiations when female employees ask for raises from female bosses?

Hannah Riley Bowles: No, there was no difference in the behavior of male and female evaluators toward female candidates.


Silver Spring, Md.: As a new attorney I found in many interviews I was given the "mommy lecture". Comments were made about how young female attorneys often left after having children or I was given information about flexible schedules available for parents. None of my male classmates were faced with this. Does the impression that females entering the workforce are likely to jump ship once having children impact negotiations? It can be difficult to negotiate when it is assumed you are only working to fill time until you become pregnant.

Hannah Riley Bowles: Absolutely. It is not clear, though, that that is what was operating in our research. Across all of the studies, we never found any gender difference favoring men in the willingness to hire or work with the candidate when the candidate did not negotiate. So, it was not the case that the evaluators were disinclined to work with women as opposed to men.


Washington, D.C.: Any strategies or advice for a mid-20s female trying to negotiate a higher salary with a small (all male) firm in NYC? Trying to gauge an appropriate balance. I do not want to be perceived as a meek, pushover but I also want to maintain a positive working relationship if I do accept the offer.

Hannah Riley Bowles: It sounds like you are in job negotiations, so that is a generally appropriate time to attempt to negotiate for higher compensation. I would suggest the following:

(1) See if you can get some advice from people who know the firm about what the norms are for negotiating compensation.

(2) See if you can get some information about good standards of comparison that would help to legitimate your request for a higher salary.

(3) Communicate your desire for strong, positive working relationships as well as to be paid competitively.

(4) Think about what you really want from these job negotiations. Working for leaders in your field and getting particular types of work experience might end up paying off a lot more over the course of your career than negotiating a few thousand dollars more. Think broadly about your job negotiations, so that you maximize the value of the work at multiple levels.

Best of luck!


Fairfax: Re boys trading cards. I am an ancient (63) female and I traded "trading cards" with girl friends when I was a kid. Also went through the usual picking of teams for sports, deciding who got to be the "enders" for jump rope, etc. There must be equivalent negotiating situations for girls today.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the note. I certainly see no reason to imagine that negotiations between girls are any less intricate and demanding than negotiations between boys. Louder negotiations don't necessarily mean more difficult negotiations, although I bet girls could probably give boys a run for their money in the "louder department", too.


Nampa, Idaho: I am a female registered nurse. In my profession there is much discussion about how to go about elevating nursing, as a profession, to the same standard of professionalism and clout other "professions" enjoy. There is much discussion about why this has not occurred in it because we are largely women? a lack of solidarity? the history of nursing as being that of the (male)physicians handmaid (one of patriarchal subservience)? Female nurses often complain that male nurses are given more responsibility and advanced sooner than their female counterparts.

The solutions presented to nurses are 'dressing more professionally' - joining associations and networking to advance our own positions (thereby strengthening the profession as a whole).

As I read this article, I wonder how many of these inherent social/cultural characteristics actually shape our profession and contribute to what we consider a lack of being perceived as professionals (and conducting ourselves as professionals).

What if any parallels do you think might be drawn from these studies?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the excellent question.

Men and women who work in the same professions are compensated differently, but there is also very strong data that shows that professions that are seen to be primarily male or primarily female are compensated differently. Women who work in a profession such as nursing are thereby doubly disadvantaged. If I were to guess, in fact, I would guess that salary differentials between "male" and "female" professions are far greater than salary differentials between men and women within any given profession.

Hannah Riley Bowles: Yes, what you are describing resonates strongly with research on gender in organizations. Occupations dominated by women do tend to be perceived as lower status. There is also research describing the "glass elevator" for men in female dominated professions as opposed to the "glass ceiling" for women in male-dominated profession. It seems to me that the shortage of nurses is creating a real opportunity to redefine nursing as a profession. I know that attempts to recruit men into the profession are emphasizing different attributes than have been associated with nursing in the past (e.g., crisis management vs. nurturing). Perhaps, people like you can take advantage of this broader definition of your profession to educate people.

Thanks for your comment!


Shankar Vedantam: That's all we have time for today. Thanks so much to everyone who posted questions, and thanks especially to Hannah Bowles for joining our chat today.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive