Asking for What You Want: Workplace Negotiation for Women

Asking for What You Want: Workplace Negotiation for Women

It’s well-known that the average salary for women lags behind the average salary for men in almost every industrialized country, despite the practically universal presence of laws requiring equal pay for equal work. One of the most prevalent explanations for this disparity is the idea that men and women have different attitudes towards negotiation and self-promotion.


That’s certainly the hypothesis supported by Linda C. Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author with Sara Laschever of ‘Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change’. Babcock was inspired to investigate the issue when she was given responsibility for the PhD program in her academic department. Upon taking up her role she found that the male PhD candidates were working as teachers, while the female ones were working as teaching assistants. ‘Why was this so?’, she wondered. She found that the male candidates had simply approached the dean asking to teach that semester, while the female candidates had been waiting for an email asking if they wanted to teach (which they never received). As a consequence, the male students were acquiring teaching experience that the women were missing out on.

This led her to believe that, “men don’t mind being called tough” by making requests or demands – while women were more worried about the social consequences of asking for things, as it was more likely that they would be perceived as aggressive in a negative way. Babcock suggests this is due to our socialization, which sets different expectations for male and female behavior. She also notes that the effect exists regardless of the gender of a person’s manager, as the phenomenon is not the creation of managers: indeed, a manager might well want to treat their staff equitably, but would still face the fact that their male employees were simply more likely to actively press for opportunities. 

Breaking down a negotiation

Andrea Schneider, who counts teaching negotiation to law students among her responsibilities as Assistant Professor at Marquette University Law School, offers some refinement to this narrative in a Tedx Talk entitled, “Women Don’t Negotiate and Other Similar Nonsense”

Schneider believes that the “fear of a backlash” myth (the idea that women fear being perceived as aggressive if they assert themselves) is overblown, and draws attention to research on workers in Australia in 2013-14 that showed no difference in the likelihood of men and women asking for a raise within that study group. So can a different attitude to negotiation really explain the salary gap, like Babcock believes?  

Well, Schneider accepts that there may be differences in assertiveness between men and women, due to social expectations. However, she proposes that assertiveness is only one of five main skills required in a great negotiator. The other four, in her model, are empathy (the capacity to see the other side’s perspective and emotions), flexibility (both in terms of the outcome of the negotiation and its process), social intuition (the ability to build rapport), and ethicality (having a strong reputation for trustworthiness). Given this, it is only in circumstances where the difference in assertiveness is likely to come to the fore that a difference between men and women will arise. In situations where assertiveness is both expected and rewarded among both genders, women become as likely to ask for raises and other benefits as men and the gender difference disappears. 

So how to negotiate?

What Babcock and Schneider agree on is that the skills required to be an excellent negotiator do not differ between men and women. 

Babcock – who, like Schneider, is also a negotiation teacher of long experience – focuses on the model of “cooperative negotiation” favored at Carnegie Mellon, which stresses cooperation over conflict. Schneider, meanwhile, emphasizes her five-fold model described above. She argues that both men and women are equally rewarded for being “amiable, fun, pleasant and assertive” in a negotiation, while punished for making “obnoxious, aggressive, and overly competitive” demands.

The skills required for being a successful negotiator may not, then, differ between the sexes. But Babcock does argue that many women do not know that their colleagues are negotiating and pushing for what they’d like to attain – not only in terms of salary, but on things like extra benefits, the projects to which they are assigned, and other opportunities. She suggests it’s important for women to remember that if they don’t ask for these things, they will not receive them.

And she also emphasizes the need to practice. After all, negotiating is not a skill that any of us are born with, and it takes a bit of work to improve. Why not start out by bringing a faulty product you’ve bought back to the store, even if you’re a little outside the returns window, and see what you can achieve? 

Indeed, it’s beyond doubt that women are just as capable as men when it comes to negotiating well. Particularly if you feel you’ve got the softer skills that Schneider emphasizes, then it doesn’t require any great change to your personality for you to become a brilliant negotiator – just a little awareness and a little practice!