Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others
Women adjust their negotiation strategies according to context, conceding early when they anticipate backlash for violating gender expectations.
Research on competitive business negotiation has found that women are generally less assertive and less successful than men. These findings are especially true in salary negotiations, where women agree to lower outcomes, widening the gender wage gap. Past studies suggests that women and men may come to the table with differing levels of entitlement or self-interest, or that women may be discouraged by social cues that signal assertiveness and do not align with female gender roles.
However, negotiation is not intrinsically “masculine” or “feminine”: while assertive bargaining for one’s own salary may conflict with preconceived stereotypes for women, advocating on behalf of family or friends aligns well with that same stereotype. A prior study found that women negotiating another person’s salary fared better than women negotiating for themselves—suggesting that women actively adjust their behavior according to conversational context.
In this study, the authors examine how women’s negotiation strategies change when they take on gender-congruent roles where they advocate for others, and gender-incongruent roles where they advocate for themselves. Researchers conducted up to five rounds of salary negotiation with a simulated hiring manager to compare aspirations, responses to a low opening offer, and outcomes when women and men bargained for themselves, or on behalf of a friend they had referred for the job.
When negotiating a starting salary against an alternative offer of $40,000, women advocating for themselves began with similar aspirations, but conceded more quickly compared to women advocating for a friend, or men advocating for either themselves or a friend.
- There were no significant differences in aspiration between women and men when they began salary negotiations: Women and men, whether advocating for themselves (self advocating) or friends (other-advocating), set similar pre-negotiation goals for their lowest acceptable salary, desired salary, and planned opening offer.
- Women anticipated more backlash in the negotiation process than men: self-advocating women anticipated negative perceptions or retaliation from the hiring manager if they asked for more than $43,250—significantly below the threshold for self-advocating men ($50,813), other-advocating women ($48,577), or other-advocating men ($47,357).
- Self-advocating women conceded more quickly in negotiations: In response to a low opening offer from the hiring manager, self-advocating women responded with a mean counteroffer of $42,000—about $7,000 lower than the mean counteroffers from self-advocating men ($48,441), other-advocating women ($49,107), or other-advocating men ($49,821).
- Quick concessions during the negotiation from self-advocating women were the result of anticipated backlash: Differences in anticipated backlash fully explained the differences in concessions between self-advocating women and self-advocating men, other-advocating women, and other-advocating men.
- Self-advocating women were aware they were making significant concessions: Following negotiation, self-advocating women rated the competitiveness of their negotiation style at 3.86 on a 7-point scale—significantly below self-advocating men (5.06), other-advocating women (5.14), and other-advocating men (4.93).
In short, the need to manage anticipated backlash caused women to quickly concede nearly 20% of their total expected value in negotiations, leaving little room for further bargaining—but only when negotiating on their own behalf. Women negotiating on behalf of others expected less backlash and were able to bargain as assertively as men, with similar outcomes. To manage anticipated backlash, negotiation training for women should shift away from promoting assertiveness and towards reframing negotiation in communal terms. Individual women may also benefit from negotiating on behalf of one another. At the organizational level, compensation policy should shift away from individual bargaining and towards equitable, invariable criteria that reward both individual performance and communal behaviors such as mentoring.
The study recruited 59 participants (47% women) on a university campus. Participants were randomly assigned to negotiate a starting salary either for themselves or for a friend they had referred for the job. In both cases, the candidate had an alternative job offer with a salary of $40,000. Participants were led to believe they were negotiating with another person in the role of hiring manager, actually simulated by a computer program. Before negotiation, participants reported the lowest salary they would consider before ending negotiations (reservation point), their desired salary (target point), their anticipated opening offer, and an anticipated backlash threshold, or the highest salary beyond which a hiring manager might consider them pushy or retaliate (average of 2 items). The simulated hiring manager began negotiations with a low opening offer. Over 1-5 rounds, participants could either accept the offer, or reject it using one of five preset messages reflecting assertive, entitled, qualification-based, cooperative, or dejected/hopeful responses. Participants who rejected the offer then submitted a counteroffer. After negotiation, participants rated the competitiveness of their negotiation style on a 7-point scale.