Ellen Pao, interim chief executive of Reddit, announced last month a ban on salary negotiations at the social media company. Her stated goal: to eliminate the persistent disadvantage that women have at the bargaining table.
Her pronouncement came just days after Pao lost a high-profile sex-discrimination lawsuit against one of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture-capital firms. Since then, she has insisted that companies “can’t just hide” from sexism in their workplaces and must be proactive in counteracting discrimination. Still, while it is true that women earn about 78 cents, on average, for every dollar a man makes for comparable work, Pao’s no-negotiating policy has struck many as absurd.
Why take away an important tool for women to achieve equal pay? Why stop a woman with star qualifications from pushing for as much money as she can get?
In a perfect world, I would agree. Many people in the equal-pay debate argue that inferior negotiating skills are at the root of the gender pay gap. Teaching women to be better negotiators — or getting them to negotiate at all — would fix the issue. But the causes of this problem are more complicated than that. We have two decades of rigorous empirical research on how gender affects contract negotiations, and it all points in the same direction. Put simply: As we practice it in the United States, negotiation is a man’s game with men’s rules.
At bargaining tables, women’s biggest obstacle isn’t that they can’t learn to be “more like men.” The real problem is that most people, men and women alike, don’t want them to be more like men.
The traits that both men and women associate with good negotiators are tied up with ideas of masculinity — such as rationality, assertiveness and self-assurance — rather than more feminine traits, such as emotionality and accommodation. That association automatically gives men the perceived upper hand in negotiations.
In a 2001 study I co-authored, we found that fewer than one-third of the surveyed business students believed that women had the advantage in negotiations, while 48 percent said men had the edge. The three most-cited reasons for men’s supposed advantage were their strong and firm nature, aggressive and competitive instincts, and strong desire not to lose to a woman. I co-authored similar research last year that revealed that these perceptions have held steady. The respondents in that survey expected that women would be nicer negotiators than men, but also believed them to be less competent and more gullible.
If women aren’t seen as tough enough at negotiating, why not just train them to “man up”? Unfortunately, even when they do employ traditionally male tactics, women still lose. Underlying our assumptions about what makes a good negotiator is the idea that it’s okay — even necessary — to aggressively pursue one’s self-interest when bargaining. It’s not a sign of being selfish; it’s what we expect. But we don’t expect it in women.
Researchers repeatedly have documented that people react more unfavorably to women who ask for more money, compared with men who do. A woman who negotiates is seen as especially demanding and therefore a less-than-ideal new colleague. In a series of controlled experiments in the 1990s, a Rutgers University study found that women risk being passed over for hire if they engage in self-promotion in job interviews, defying expectations of “feminine modesty.” More than a decade later, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon researchers found that the effect persisted, with women facing backlash when behaving assertively in negotiations. To be demanding in a business setting is to be unfeminine, unseemly, shrewish or worse. This body of research underscores a cultural truth: Women are expected to be warm, empathetic and unselfish.
The Supreme Court ruled more than a quarter-century ago that this kind of gender stereotyping constitutes discrimination. In the landmark 1989 Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case, a top-performing woman, Ann Hopkins, was denied a promotion for being too masculine in her interpersonal style. Supervisors at the accounting firm said Hopkins was “macho” and “overcompensated for being a woman.” She was advised to take a “course at charm school” and “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”
Those genderized expectations persist today, with severe effects for women in negotiations. In 2014, Nazareth College rescinded a job offer to a woman for a faculty position after she attempted to negotiate a higher salary, maternity leave and a few other reasonable terms, according to Slate. “This is how I thought negotiating worked,” she wrote in her account of the incident. It does, for some. But again and again, we find that women pay a price when they’re assertive.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of women in business, has advised women to take an alternate route to winning in negotiations — playing up more feminine approaches. In their job interviews and salary negotiations, Sandberg advises women to always smile, to be “relentlessly pleasant” and “communal,” and to avoid taking a “critical stance.” In other words, be “ ‘appropriately’ female.”
Sadly, Sandberg isn’t wrong. Our research at Berkeley supports the success of such tactics, by showing that women improve their chances in negotiations with men by using a touch of flirtation. In a 2012 study, American adults imagined selling a used car to a female buyer. When the buyer was flirtatious — playful, flattering and laughing — men gave her a lower price compared with a female buyer who adopted a neutral, “let’s get down to business” demeanor. In a subsequent study, we found that feminine charm works its magic by putting men in a more positive mood.
When it comes to playing hardball, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Training them to be tough negotiators won’t overcome the cultural rules rigged against them in the workplace. And it’s galling to think that women might need to employ a “Mad Men”-era strategy of flirtation to get a fair shake. Given that salary negotiations ignite the gender pay gap at the starting gate,a gap fueled by small gender biases over time, negotiation-free workplaces are women’s best option for getting the salaries they deserve.
Such policies do come with some risk. A ban on negotiations leaves a lot of power in the hands of employers, who may not be making equal salary offers to men and women in the first place. The solution is transparency. In an effort to encourage equity and trust, a growing number of companies reveal the salaries of all their employees, sometimes even posting them online. This makes it much harder to hoodwink job candidates and helps eliminate gender discrepancies.
Will a no-negotiation policy hinder employers’ ability to attract top talent? Quite the contrary. Research shows that companies that emphasize a culture of equality are attractive to workers. In a study I co-authored last year, we found that undergraduate business students, particularly aspiring businesswomen, are turned off by the prospect of working for employers who sacrifice fairness in exchange for profit. That’s been chief executive Dane Atkinson’s experience at analytics company SumAll, which has a transparent pay policy. “We’ve gained far better people,” he told Al Jazeera America last year, “because people who think they’ve earned their salary and have no issue with that tend to be better teammates.”
A no-negotiation policy implies that an employer pays based on a job’s market value, rather than based on subjective individual characteristics. Laszlo Bock, chief of people operations at Google, recently extolled the virtues of this principle for eliminating the pay gap. Even making offers based on an individual’s salary history can perpetuate the problem, he noted. “We figure out what the job is worth, not the person,” he said during a talk in Washington.
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