Last month, the city of Boston launched an unprecedented program: free salary negotiation tutorials for any women who choose to sign up. Washington Post reporter Danielle Paquette, who attended an 11-person session at a Boston community center, described watching attendees role-play as “employees” negotiating for a $66,000 salary and “employers” offering $54,000. “Trust me,” the instructor from the city’s Office of Women’s Advancement told them. “Every man does this. Every man negotiates.”
At first glance, this looks pretty great. The gender wage gap has stayed stubbornly wide: Women make an average of 78 cents on a man’s dollar nationwide (and 83 cents on the dollar in Boston). What could be wrong with teaching women to negotiate better, using a program that Boston hopes will serve as a model for other cities? Actually, a lot, according to experts.
It’s true that women negotiate less often than men. In their 2003 book Women Don’t Ask, Carnegie Mellon professor Linda Babcock and co-author Sara Laschever found that only 7 percent of women they surveyed on graduation from professional schools were negotiating their initial offers, versus 57 percent of men. But the instincts telling women to keep quiet may, at least in some cases, be good ones. The Post piece references a 2005 study in which Babcock showed participants video of men and women negotiating salaries with the exact same script, explaining, “Among male viewers, the men’s negotiating style won approval, while the women registered as too demanding.” Babcock also teamed up with Harvard researcher Hannah Riley Bowles in a 2007 study that found that for women, “sometimes it does hurt to ask.” Bowles’ research found that both men and women can come off as unlikable when they advocate for themselves—but while both men and women suggested they would be less willing to work with “unlikable” female colleagues, there was no such penalty for “unlikable” men.
As writer Maria Konnikova commented on the Bowles and Babcock study in a 2014 New Yorker piece:
One reason for the bias may be that the person hiring—or giving a raise—values different qualities in male and female colleagues. … Julie Phelan and her colleagues at Rutgers have found that, when women are already in the hiring or promotion process—that is, when their credentials have already been screened and they are in the interview phase—the focus shifts away from their competence and toward their social skills. That effect is absent for male candidates.
In pay negotiations, as in so many other aspects of life, women seem to be walking an impossibly thin high wire. To act feminine is to be a pushover—the definition of a bad negotiator. To act masculine, aggressive, is to defy cultural expectations and risk souring professional relationships. (Or severing them altogether: In 2014, Slate wrote about an academic whose job offer was rescinded when she tried to negotiate the terms.) “When it comes to playing hardball, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” argues Laura J. Kray of the University of California–Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Kray’s research has shown that flirtatiousness aids women in financial negotiations. “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.”
If teaching women to negotiate won’t work, what could? Kray’s answer to this conundrum is an increasingly popular one among economists and researchers: ban salary negotiations altogether and set a pay range for each position, irrespective of the individual chosen to fill it. This lessens the risk of unconscious bias on the basis of gender, race, or anything else. This was the policy Ellen Pao adopted during her tenure as interim CEO at Reddit. “Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,” she said at the time. “So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair.”
At the negotiation tutorial that the Post attended, a black woman named Maria Fernandes, who works for a nonprofit, expressed concern: “If I act aggressively, they’ll see me as the Angry Black Woman.” Boston’s program risks doing her a disservice if it pushes the message that her instincts are wrong. The city’s desire to give Fernandes and women like her more salary-negotiation tools is laudable. But the research suggests that focusing on how women negotiate won’t necessarily secure them their next raise, no matter how nicely—or firmly—they ask.