Research shows a higher “social cost” for women who negotiate

Women tend not to negotiate not because they lack confidence or negotiation skills, but because of the “social cost” negotiating too often holds for them, according to researched conducted by Harvard professor Hannah Riley Bowles,  

“Numerous studies have been conducted in which participants rate their impressions of employees who negotiate for pay and of employees who let the same opportunity to negotiate pass them by,” writes Bowles. “The researchers then compared people’s willingness to work with that employee after evaluators saw him or her negotiate, or not.” Bowles terms “social cost” as what happened when “evaluators were less inclined to work with the same employee after seeing [them] negotiate.” In multiple studies, the social cost of negotiating is almost always higher for women than it is for men — so, knowing this, it’s not surprising that women can be reluctant to negotiate.

Professor Bowles cites four experiments that show that gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations may be explained by differential treatment of men and women when they attempt to negotiate. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants evaluated written accounts of candidates who did or did not initiate negotiations for higher compensation. Evaluators penalized female candidates more than male candidates for initiating negotiations. In Experiment 3, participants evaluated videotapes of candidates who accepted compensation offers or initiated negotiations. Male evaluators penalized female candidates more than male candidates for initiating negotiations; female evaluators penalized all candidates for initiating negotiations. Perceptions of niceness and demandingness explained resistance to female negotiators. In Experiment 4, participants adopted the candidate’s perspective and assessed whether to initiate negotiations in same scenario used in Experiment 3. With male evaluators, women were less inclined than men to negotiate, and nervousness explained this effect. There was no gender difference when evaluator was female.

The results of this research “are important to understand before one criticizes a woman — or a woman criticizes herself — for being reluctant to negotiate for more pay,” says Bowles. “Their reticence is based on an accurate read of the social environment. Women get a nervous feeling about negotiating for higher pay because they are intuiting — correctly — that self-advocating for higher pay would present a socially difficult situation for them — more so than for men,” she said.

Hannah Riley Bowles is the Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a leading expert on how gender influences pay negotiations and more broadly on negotiation as a micro-mechanism of inequality. Her current research focuses on women's leadership advancement, examining both situational barriers and individual strategies.