Tingting Zhou, a human resources consultant based in New York City, admits that she didn’t negotiate for pay when she was offered her first job.
“It all happened quite swiftly, and I found myself at a loss for words in the moment, ultimately accepting the offer as presented,” the 33-year-old told Yahoo Finance.
Her reticence cost her around $5,000 in annual salary, she said, limiting how much she could set aside in a retirement plan and setting a lower bar for future annual raises. Zhou has never made that mistake again.
“While not every negotiation resulted in a higher offer, I consistently pushed myself out of my comfort zone to engage in the salary negotiation process. Even though I’ve negotiated multiple times, I still experience a sense of nervousness each time, which I view as an opportunity to practice and improve.”
Contrary to popular belief, professional women like Zhou are negotiating their salaries, and they are doing so more often than men, according to a recent analysis published by the Academy of Management. But they get turned down more often too.
The study upends commonly held beliefs that women are paid less than men because they indirectly choose to be by being less competitive and assertive. The study’s researchers say that understanding what’s really at play when it comes to pay disparity is important to closing that gap.
“While men in the past may have been more likely than women to negotiate, the gender difference has since reversed,” University of California Berkeley Haas professor Laura Kray, one of the researchers, told Yahoo Finance. “Continuing to put the blame on women for not negotiating away the gender pay gap does double damage, perpetuating gender stereotypes and weakening efforts to fight them.”
Kray was joined by Vanderbilt University associate professor Jessica Kennedy, and the University of California Berkeley postdoctoral student Margaret Lees on the study.
‘Root causes of the gender pay gap’
When Kray and her co-authors analyzed a survey of students graduating from a top MBA program between 2015 to 2019, they found that significantly more women than men reported negotiating their job offers — 54% versus 44%.
The researchers then pulled apart a 2019 alumni survey of 1,900 MBA graduates. The survey asked the MBAs for their salaries and included a multipronged question about whether they had ever asked for raises or promotions; whether those negotiations had been successful; and whether they had received a raise or promotion without asking.
The analysis confirmed that people who ask for higher pay are indeed more likely to get higher pay than those who don’t ask.
But overall, they found that the women earned 22% less than the men. And other than women’s lower pay, the only differences that emerged along gender lines were that more women than men said they had attempted to negotiate and more women reported that they had been spurned.
“We need to look beyond negotiating propensity to understand the root causes of the gender pay gap,” Kray said. “It is not that women are not negotiating job offers, even though they are being told ‘no’ more often than men.”
Women earn 88% of what men make after finishing their MBA, but only 63% of what men make 10 years later, according to the paper. This pay gap among MBA graduates “is especially notable considering the nearly identical skills and qualifications held by men and women at the time the degree is conferred,” the researchers wrote.
As the expression goes, nevertheless, she persisted. “Holding onto the belief that the pay gap is due to women not negotiating also bleeds into other ‘system-justifying’ beliefs, such as women choosing lower paying jobs, working fewer hours,” Kray said.
While negotiating for pay is non-negotiable for women, it can backfire for some women even more than just the higher pay getting turned down.
“I know one woman who didn’t get the job because of her style of asking for more,” Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Find Your Happy at Work,” told Yahoo Finance. “The employer was my client, and he was so turned off by the aggressive way she tried to get a bigger salary and more perks that he concluded she wasn’t excited about the opportunity and withdrew his offer.”
Nevertheless, if you don’t ask, you don’t get, Nancy Ancowitz, a New York City-based career advancement coach, told Yahoo Finance. “I’ve coached many women who exceed their expectations in salary negotiations – just by trying.”
It does take some legwork. “They prepare for and practice answering objections so when they’re dismissed, talked over, or belittled, they assert themselves,” she said. “They role-play and become attuned to verbal and non-verbal cues, often reading between the lines to negotiate.”
They also prepare well by getting clear about what they want and when they’ll be ready to walk away from a salary offer, she added. “This way, they don’t get lost in the heat of a negotiation, possibly selling themselves short.”
Along the same lines, some women are not taken as seriously during salary negotiations because of “societal biases connecting their higher voices with lower authority,” she added. “Same goes for body language – like not making eye contact and otherwise acting dainty, which can come across as weak in a negotiation. I’m not suggesting manspreading and mansplaining for women, but I am recommending that women practice a salary negotiation role-play on video just to see how they come across.”
And that takes us back to Kray and her theory about women and negotiating. “If people believe men have better pay outcomes simply because they negotiate and women don’t, then they think we just need to train women to negotiate better rather than fixing a discriminatory system,” Kray said. “We call this ‘legitimizing a myth.'”
She’s got a point. Courting women with courses on negotiating is hot. Just Google, “negotiating strategies for women” and millions of links appear for books, articles, workshops, and classes offered by elite universities including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia University, and Cornell and national associations such as The American Association of University Women.
“The ‘women don’t ask’ belief is consistent with a whole host of explanations that essentially blame women for their lesser compensation compared to men,” Kray said. “My hope is that the research will shift the focus away from solutions designed to ‘fix women’ and instead focus on structural barriers.”
Kerry Hannon is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a workplace futurist, a career and retirement strategist, and the author of 14 books, including “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work” and “Never Too Old To Get Rich.” Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.
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