The costs of asking for a higher salary

Women who haggle for better pay often are seen as "less nice," so many don't, researchers say.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

The same explanation for the gender pay gap has been put on exhibit, again and again: Women aren’t as aggressive as men are about asking for raises. But, according to a new study, the reason may not be so much that women don’t know how to haggle as it is that they perceive consequences to being seen as the not-so-nice girl.

In a series of studies, Linda C. Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, and Hannah Riley Bowles, a public policy professor at Harvard University, found that it isn’t just gender that dictates whether the job applicant negotiates. Researchers had 367 volunteers role-play a closing job interview; they were given the choice of whether or not to ask for more than they were offered. They found that women are less likely than men to negotiate their salary when the decider is a man, but that gender gap falls away when the applicants are dealing with a woman.

Why might this be? Well, in a related study, the researchers asked 285 volunteers to evaluate videos of job applicants either asking for higher pay or agreeing to the offered salary. “Men tended to rule against women who negotiated but were less likely to penalize men; women tended to penalize both men and women who negotiated, and preferred applicants who did not ask for more,” reports the Washington Post. (It’s interesting that in that related study female applicants didn’t perceive — or at least weren’t dissuaded by — the inclination among women to penalize both men and women for pay haggling.)

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In another study, 119 volunteers evaluated descriptions of male and female job applicants, all of whom were described as good candidates. Included in each candidate profile was a blurb about whether he or she accepted the offered salary. The volunteers were asked whether they would hire a given candidate; researchers found that both male and female candidates were viewed negatively for negotiating, but the effect was twofold for women. And — prepare to be unsurprised — women were seen as “less nice” for negotiating.

Bowles sums up the findings: “What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not. They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.”

This alone doesn’t explain the pay gap, of course. But, it’s a reminder that closing at least the pay negotiation gap will be trickier than teaching women to be more aggressive. “This isn’t about fixing the women,” said Bowles. “It isn’t about telling women, ‘You need self-confidence or training.’ They are responding to incentives within the social environment … The point of this paper is: Yes, there is an economic rationale to negotiate, but you have to weigh that against social risks of negotiating. What we show is those risks are higher for women than for men.”

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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