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Women Are More Likely to Negotiate Salaries. Why Do They Still Earn Less Than Men?

Asian woman holding pen negotiates with unseen person

As pay inequity continues to plague U.S. workplaces, many organizations and women’s rights advocates are asking why.

Some research, including a recent survey by SHRM, shows that discrimination may fuel the gender pay discrepancy. Women’s reluctance to negotiate for higher salaries has also long been considered a contributor to the gender pay gap, but a 2023 report found that women are actually more inclined than men to ask for what they deserve.

Beth Fisher-YoshidaBeth Fisher-Yoshida

If women are more likely to negotiate salaries, why do they earn less than men?

Beth Fisher-Yoshida is the director of the Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program of the Columbia University School of Professional Studies and author of New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation (Bold Story Press, 2023). She spoke with SHRM Online about how the inherent biases in the negotiation process, differing levels of assertiveness between men and women, and what women are taught at an early age could all influence salary negotiations.

SHRM Online: What are a few challenges women face when negotiating salaries?

Fisher-Yoshida: When we enter into negotiations, we are not only addressing our current negotiation partner and the issues at hand, we are bringing with us all of the stories we have developed over the years about who we are as negotiators.

Many of these stories go way back to when we were young and being socialized into the world to be a “good girl.” We also may have been taught to respect our elders, work hard to get what we deserve, and maybe to fit in and not make waves. Now, all these years later, we are being told we have to get out there and ask for what we want and be assertive in the process.

Conceptually, it all makes sense. However, these stories run deep and influence our brains and how we behave. We develop patterns of thinking and behavior that are apparent in our interactions with others and also physically in our brains. Words matter, and the stories we tell ourselves are told to us and about us create tracks in our brains that continue to play. This strong imprint influences all subsequent situations that we frame and name as negotiations.

It’s possible to change these stories we carry, questioning whether we deserve a higher salary or if we are being nice enough, to new ones that are more beneficial to us. We can create new patterns by learning better negotiation skills and having the mindset to want to negotiate differently.

SHRM Online: A recent report found that women negotiate salary more than men but still earn less. Why do you think that is?

Fisher-Yoshida: There could be several reasons for this, and two thoughts come to mind.

One is that when someone says they negotiated their salary or any other benefit, that is all we know. We do not have any deeper insights into how the negotiation went, who they negotiated with or what the specific outcomes were.

We can see from research that women are not better off—and not for lack of trying. This can reflect the quality and effectiveness of the negotiation in that it hasn’t resulted in more stellar results. But let’s not put the total onus on the women negotiating, because we need to consider who their counterpart is in the negotiation.

This leads me to my second reaction. Our biases are built in during our socialization process growing up. And if the dominant narrative is that women earn less than men and that they either don’t negotiate or don’t negotiate well, then the counterpart is going in with an inherent bias toward the women negotiating.

This is probably not conscious but could influence how the negotiation is framed and what the settlement range for the negotiation is. If the bias is in play, then the initial offer will be lower than a salary offered to a man, and already the woman is disadvantaged. The women negotiating are responding to the initial offer being made—the so-called anchor—and therefore, their responses are going to be in a lower negotiation range. Over the years, this gap becomes incrementally larger.

SHRM Online: What do men do in their salary negotiations that works so well? And is there anything women should avoid doing?

Fisher-Yoshida: Men and women may have the same negotiating strategies and tactics, but how they present themselves and how they are perceived could differ.

Too often we blame the woman negotiating that she isn’t trying enough and is not as effective as her male counterpart. However, we are not operating in isolation. We are all operating within our social systems, including those in our organizations, which are reflective of the broader society.

One example could be the level of assertiveness a woman uses in getting her points across. In general, there is a higher tolerance for assertiveness from men than from women. This is not only across genders, but within genders, as well. The assertiveness in a man may not even be noticed because it’s expected. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to be nice and not make waves, so everyone in the social world has bought into that characterization and may have adverse reactions to women being assertive.

Advocating for oneself is expected from men, but advocating on behalf of others is expected for women. Consciously, we say that, of course, women should advocate for themselves. Viscerally though, we may have a reaction because the behavior is counter to the stories we have about how women advocate. Women can be fierce when it comes to fighting for others, and that is respected. It is when they apply this same level of fierceness to themselves that the behavior comes into question.

SHRM Online: What do you want HR to know about women and salary negotiations?

Fisher-Yoshida: HR professionals  work within a system that has its own checks and balances, [including] critically examining the systems that govern and reward the employees within an organizational structure. Too often, older policies and procedures get handed down and, when not questioned, are taken for granted and assumed this is the way it is.

The world around us is constantly changing, and systems need to keep up, understanding that some are less agile and need more time. There are ripple effects across the organization from all changes, and these need to be considered before changes are made.

The same ripple effects course through a person’s career. If they are slightly disadvantaged at the beginning, these differences become magnified and more pronounced as time goes on. Advocating for equity across the board and correcting past injustices is necessary for employees to feel valued in their workplace. That will increase commitment and not just compliance so that everyone brings the best they can to their roles. This means that gender pay differences will need to be corrected over time, and budgets need to correspond to support these adjustments.

Learning and development providers need to prepare people for their salary negotiations on both sides of the table. This will ensure that the negotiators show up prepared and are open to listening and having a meaningful conversation rather than being adversarial. Both work for the same organization, so it is in both of their best interests for these negotiations to work out well.

It is really important that leadership understand the implications for having compensation equity in their organizations. They need to be champions for this and work in partnership with HR professionals to make this a reality. There is much that is perceived and understood that may not be explicit, and this is especially more pronounced for those coming from a disadvantaged group.

Women will notice who gets promoted, who gets passed over and what the pipeline for their ascension looks like. Investing in talent is critical today, and the cost of losing talent has a strong negative impact. Taking time to support women in their career growth benefits all directly and indirectly involved.

Beth Fisher-Yoshida is the director of the Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program of the Columbia University School of Professional Studies. She is the author of New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation (Bold Story Press, 2023).


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