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To narrow the wage gap, take a wider view
February 26, 2020 Featured Article

In the United States, the gender wage gap for full-time workers amounts to women earning about 80 cents on the dollar as compared to men; similar or greater disparities can be found across the globe. Hannah Riley Bowles, the Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School, and a leading researcher on gender and negotiation, explains why salary negotiations are only part of the story.

Negotiation Briefings: Beyond encouraging women to negotiate more assertively for higher pay, what more is needed to close the gender wage gap? 

Hannah Riley Bowles: Economic studies show that the gender wage gap is explained more by differences in men’s and women’s career trajectories than by how men and women are paid for the same work. I encourage women to think about negotiation as a tool not only for increasing their pay in a particular job but also for advancing their career trajectories. We will make faster progress toward closing the gender wage gap by getting more women into high-paying jobs than by negotiating a little more money in lower-paid occupations. Women—really, everyone—should take a broader view of what they negotiate to advance their careers.

NB: What should we be negotiating?

HRB: Negotiating for resources and opportunities that support your professional growth may be most important. In recent research, my coauthors—Bobbi Thomason from Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School and Julia Bear from Stony Brook University—and I asked hundreds of midcareer professionals and senior executives to describe a recent career negotiation they’d initiated. Again and again, they shared stories about negotiating their roles—leadership opportunities, expanded scope of authority, professional development, etc. Only a small percentage of the examples related primarily to negotiating pay.

NB: But what about research showing a backlash against female negotiators who ask for more?

HRB: The strongest evidence of backlash is in the realm of pay. We associate men with being the high earners and family breadwinners, which makes pay negotiations counterstereotypical for women. There’s growing evidence that men face more backlash than women when negotiating flexible work arrangements or paid leave, which are feminine-stereotyped benefits. This suggests the problem isn’t that “women don’t ask” but that it’s hard for both men and women to self-advocate in a counterstereotypical way. In our recent research, we observed no evidence of gender differences in the propensity to negotiate roles, but men reported more pay negotiations than women, and women reported more workload negotiations than men, particularly to manage work-family conflicts.

What men and women negotiate is important to the story of the gender wage gap. Let’s say you have a young professional couple that aims to have a 50-50 relationship. However, at work, she has more potential to negotiate for family leave or flexible work, and he has more potential to negotiate for higher pay. With the birth of a first child, they might find themselves slipping into a more traditional relationship than they had planned.

NB: What differences have you observed in how men and women negotiate?

HRB: To our surprise, we found that, across studies in different types of work contexts, women were more likely than men to recount initiating what we refer to as “bending” negotiations—requests for personal exceptions or nonstandard work arrangements, such as a special opportunity for professional development or an unusually flexible work situation. Digging deeper, we realized that women may be trying to reconcile their “lack of fit” with traditionally male-dominated career paths. It was inspiring to see how women had negotiated to remain professionally employed during times of work-family conflict or to carve out counterstereotypical career paths. For example, in a firm where most senior managers are also engineers, a woman who is not an engineer might argue, “You need a leader with my experience building cross-functional teams. Give me six months to see if I can make a difference.”

NB: Adopting this wider view, what can organizational leaders do to enhance gender equity in career negotiations?

HRB: For practical and ethical reasons, it isn’t right to imagine that women will close the gender pay gap simply by negotiating harder. Social change requires top-down leadership, as well as pressure from the bottom up. Organizational leaders should look critically at how work norms and culture shape career advancement and whether some current practices might contribute to gender inequality. For example, it is well documented that lack of transparency about what is potentially negotiable increases the potential for gender differences in negotiation outcomes. Organizational leaders should make sure that all employees have the same quality of information and advice about what is negotiable—for instance, by increasing transparency about potential resources and opportunities for career advancement, and ensuring that everyone has colleagues to go to for professional support.

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