We’re in an unprecedented moment for employee negotiations. The pandemic accelerated the transformation of work practices, and we’re living through a historic labor migration and uncertain economic times in which organizations are struggling to attract and retain talent. In the subsequent surge in negotiation, if women and men are confined to outdated gender expectations, we could come out of this in an even more inequitable place. The authors dispel three myths that are hampering women’s potential to seize opportunities and overcome barriers in their careers. As organizations redefine the future of work, it’s time for leaders to make their employee negotiations more equitable.
We work with professional women all the time on their career negotiations: training them, advising their employers, and studying their successes and pitfalls.
Over and over again, we hear three negotiation myths that we fear are hampering women’s potential to seize opportunities and overcome barriers in their careers. As organizations redefine the future of work, it’s time to dispel these myths about negotiation so leaders can make their employee
Myth #1: Men negotiate and women don’t
The truth is that both men and women find it difficult to negotiate for resources that are counter-stereotypical for them, particularly because they are more likely to encounter resistance to doing so. Following traditional gender roles (which are in many ways outdated) men are the breadwinners and women the caregivers, and these stereotypes carry over into the workplace. As a result, women tend to experience more difficulty than men when negotiating higher pay, and men more difficulty than women when seeking access to family-friendly work practices. Additionally, men from historically marginalized groups also face difficulties in negotiating their salary.
In studies examining what managers and professionals negotiate over the course of their careers, men and women overwhelmingly report having negotiated their roles – and with roughly equal frequency. But examples of cases focusing on salary or workload showed that men reported more negotiating job offers and women reported negotiating more around work and family. (If negotiation scholars had first focused on how people access family-friendly work practices, they might have concluded that men don’t negotiate at all!)
For gender equality, it is extremely important that women have as much potential to negotiate their wages as men, and that men have as much potential to access family-friendly working practices as women.
Myth #2: Women should always negotiate their salary
The second misconception is that women need to negotiate their pay in order to close the gender pay gap. This is an unfair burden to place on women, especially because the gender pay gap is more about the types of jobs men and women do than differences in pay for the same work.
The gender pay gap is calculated by comparing the earnings of men and women working full time. Male-dominated jobs are generally better paid and more time-consuming, on average, than female-dominated jobs. Certainly, there are situations in which women are unfairly paid, and these must be remedied. However, negotiating for women’s career advancement is likely to have a greater impact on the gender pay gap than negotiating solely for better pay in current roles.
Keys to closing the gender wage gap are supporting women’s career advancement into higher-paying jobs and reducing the costs workers pay to seek family-friendly working conditions. In other words, let’s shift the focus to supporting negotiations on the role of women and addressing work and family issues for all workers – and stop pressuring women to focus only on salary negotiations.
Myth #3: Backlash is inevitable
Many professional women approach career negotiations with trepidation, fearing social backlash such as being alienated from colleagues or even being disinvited from work teams. Organizations can protect themselves through education and standard setting. For example, they can educate managers about potential biases – such as expecting men, not women, to be self-advocates for their career advancement – while encouraging them to actively resist expectations that people will or should act in stereotypical ways (for example, that women should be modest in their ambitions or that men should be more concerned with work than family). As part of this training, companies should encourage employees and employers to think broadly about what can be negotiated in a career conversation, including roles (for example, opportunities for advancement or development) and workload (e.g. assignments, schedules, etc.), as well as as salary.
How women can defend themselves in the meantime
While companies have a responsibility to make their bargaining practices fairer, there are also strategies women can use to reduce the risk of backlash and increase their chances of success.
Negotiation best practices suggest doing two things to be more persuasive and build rapport.