Why Women Don’t Negotiate and How to Close the Gap

Why Women Don’t Negotiate and How to Close the Gap

by Felicity Menzies
Globally, women face unique challenges in achieving workplace equality. Many reasons have been given for unequal representation at leadership and pay inequality. These include lower levels of confidence, weaker access to informal networks, lack of role models, and unconscious bias. Also, studies show that women, compared with men, are less likely to negotiate a pay rise or promotion and when they do, they start with lower demands and achieve outcomes lower than men. In one study of graduate students, only 7 percent of women negotiated with prospective employers for an increased wage, while 57 percent of men did so, which likely played a role in men’s salaries being on average 7.6 percent higher than women’s.
The long-term repercussions of women’s reluctance to negotiate, and the achievement of comparatively lower outcomes when they do, are significant. “Suppose that a man and a woman begin work at age 25 for the same employer at the same salary and their employer offers both of them 2% raises every year. If the woman accepts the raise but the man negotiates his raise to receive a 3% increase every year, then after 40 years on the job, the woman will be earning 67.7% as much as the man”.
In this blog, I explore the research behind why women don’t negotiate as often as men and why, when they do, their outcomes are lower than mens as well as how to close this gap.


Negotiation researchers attribute women’s lowered tendency to negotiate in the workplace and reduced outcomes to numerous causes:
1.   Women don’t ask to avoid assertiveness backlash. Negotiating is an assertive activity. Assertiveness is a stereotypically masculine trait. Thus women who act assertively breach social norms regarding gender roles. Research shows that when women act with assertiveness, they incur a likeability penalty. That is, women who act assertively are not as well liked as men who exhibit the same behaviours. This has two consequences (i) women may hold back from asking to avoid a social backlash or (ii) a woman’s influencing effectiveness may be diminished as a result of a decline in her likeability. This may help explain the discomfort level of women overall as negotiators. Men describe negotiation as more like a game whereas women compare it to a dentist visit.
2.   Gender stereotypes are detrimental to female negotiators. Gender stereotypes prescribe that women defer to men’s position. Whereas masculine stereotypes are competitive, assertive and dominant, female stereotypes are cooperative, submissive and weak. Gender stereotypes can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. When women play ‘in-role’ to conform with gendered expectations, they more readily concede. Gender stereotypes can also negatively impact a woman’s negotiating effectiveness because of stereotype threat—when anxieties and self-doubt experienced by women in the negotiation process negatively impact performance. The negotiation process itself aligns with stereotypically masculine traits. In addition, pay or promotion negotiations are traditionally masculine domains because of entrenched gender divisions between work and home. This mismatch in feminine stereotypes with the process and topics of negotiation may affect perceptions of women’s effectiveness in negotiations by both sexes. Women may experience higher levels of anxiety and distress, which may negatively affect their effectiveness or willingness to negotiate.
3.   Women are less agentic. Negotiation is essentially an exercise which involves changing the status quo. Due to gender power imbalances, women are less likely than men to perceive they can influence their environment and are therefore they less likely to ask. Because men have greater societal power, compared with women, they set more ambitious goals at the outset, which lead to better outcomes.
4.   Women have a lower sense of entitlement. Again linked to societal norms, women do not expect as much compensation as men and both sexes do not expect women to receive as much as men. One study developed an ultimatum game that compared women’s pay expectations with men’s. In the game, researchers found that “participants who knew the gender of the other player allocated more money to men than to women and were willing to accept less money from men than from women,”. Further, in salary negotiations, women compare themselves only to other women in their peer group. Lower outcome expectations are linked to poorer negotiation results.
5.   Women experience lower levels of confidence. Men experience and are perceived to possess higher levels of confidence than women in professional settings. Because men have higher levels of confidence they strive for higher outcomes and exhibit greater persistence. Men tend to overestimate their abilities whereas women tend to underestimate. The lower level of confidence experienced by women likely means that women experience the negotiation process as more aversive and stressful than men do and have lower expectations.
6.   Women are less comfortable with self-promotion. A reluctance to self-promote has been found to contribute to the pay gap. One study found that female lawyers often underreport their billable hours.
7.   Women use less effective negotiation strategies. Women often take a different approach than do men in negotiations. Women are more likely to employ ‘traditional strategies,’ whereby they highlight favourable attributes and factors suggesting they should receive higher compensation, such as their educational credentials. In contrast, men are more likely to utilise ‘active negotiation techniques,’ in which they use strategic methods to increase their salary offer, such as rejecting the salary offer that is given. Traditional strategies are not as effective as active negotiation strategies.
8.   Gender bias. Numerous studies show that women are rated at a lower level of competence to men in professional settings despite the same performance levels. As an extension of this, it is perceived that men are entitled to higher levels of compensation.
9.   Women have a communal self-concept. Whereas women possess an interdependent, communal self-concept, men possess an independent, individualistic self-concept. Women are thus more concerned with achieving an optimal group result and men are more concerned with maximizing their individual outcomes. This may result in women adopting a collaborative approach to negotiation whereas men adopt a competitive approach. Women are therefore more likely to accept lowered individual returns.


Despite an overall tendency for women to avoid negotiations and achieve weaker outcomes, researchers have identified some conditions under which the negotiation performance of women improves:
1.   When situational cues are feminine. One study found that when the subject matter of negotiation sessions was more traditionally feminine (such as crafts, beading, and jewelry) women were able to negotiate as effectively as men. However, when the subject matter of negotiations was traditionally masculine (like automobile manufacturing and racing), gender disparities in outcomes persisted.
2.   Low structural ambiguity. Men are more effective and ambitious negotiators than are women in situations with high structural ambiguity (when attending circumstances, such as comparable wages, are unclear). However, the gender gap closes with low structural ambiguity.
3.   When advocating on behalf of others. Women achieve higher outcomes when they negotiate on the behalf of others, as compared with advocating their own interests. This is likely because of the decreased risk of social backlash (a women does not appear selfish when advocating on behalf of others so does not breach gender norms) and a communal self-concept. One study found that female negotiators set 22 percent higher initial targets when the negotiation beneficiary was someone other than themselves. Another study found that females negotiated outcomes 18 percent higher when they were representing someone else as opposed to themselves, whereas there was less than a one half to one percent difference in the performance of male executives.


There are a number of strategies women can take to improve their negotiation effectiveness:
1.   Draw on feminine qualities. When women appreciate their relative advantages in the negotiation process, this reduces the possibility of stereotype threat (negative performance outcomes due to a self-perceived weakness in the negotiation process). Feminine qualities that are advantageous in negotiation include collaborative problem-solving, emphasising shared values, and emotional intelligence.
2.   Recognise the role of gender stereotypes. When women recognise that gender stereotypes influence their approach to negotiations, they are better able to avoid their influence. Studies show that once gender stereotypes have been made explicit, women are more aggressive in negotiation proceedings and are able to reduce the gender performance gap. Recognise gender effects. Women should enter negotiations aware that they are likely setting their expectations about outcomes and success too low. This helps to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby lowered expectations reduce effectiveness and outcomes.
3.   Formal negotiation training. Training in negotiation strategies helps women to surmount gender stereotypes because it exposes those biases. Training also increases confidence and transfers ‘active’ negotiation techniques which are more effective than the traditional strategies typically favoured by women.
4.   Practice. The gender performance gap decreases as women become more experienced in the negotiation process.
5.   Reduce structural ambiguity. Women can improve their effectiveness by gathering information about comparable market salaries and should not limit to comparisons with other females but include male salaries also.
6.   Advocate on behalf of others. Women achieve higher negotiation outcomes when they shift their advocacy focus to someone other than themselves such as their family members. This strategy only applies to individuals or groups of people, not when advocating on behalf of organisations.
7.   Impression management. Women should monitor their presentation, delivery, and mannerisms during negotiation sessions in order to help maintain the authority and credibility of their positions. Women should speak with a loud, deep, direct and clear voice and avoid fillers such as “I think” and “But”. To avoid assertiveness backlash which may affect women’s ability to influence their counterpart, women can focus on communicating competence and warmth simultaneously. In addition, principled negotiation techniques in which the goals of the negotiation process and the rationale behind a demand are emphasised over the figure are more aligned with feminine stereotypes and are less likely to trigger backlash. Similarly, an emphasis on shared values like profitability is perceived to align more readily with feminine stereotypes compared with an individualist approach.
While it may seem unfair that women must attempt to try to avoid breaching gender stereotypes, the reality is that this is the world we live in today and shifting cultural norms will only happen when we have more women at the top so, in the meantime, if we have to play by the rules somewhat to make that happen, so be it.


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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.