Why Women Can’t Negotiate Their Way out of the Wage Gap

A new study shows bargaining with an employer doesn’t always result in a larger paycheck.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 14, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, but for some the “holiday” was a just bitter reminder that the gender wage gap is still alive and well. Although skeptics have long argued that male employees only make more on average than their female counterparts because they negotiate salaries more frequently, new research shows women don’t always benefit from leaning in.

The study, published Tuesday in the Harvard Business Review, showed that women are 11 percent less likely to engage in salary negotiations than men, and that 70 percent of adults think women should negotiate more. The study also found that 69 percent of adults are more likely to encourage women than men to negotiate.

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Christine Exley, a Harvard Business School professor and a coauthor of the study, wrote in an email to TakePart that forcing women to debate their pay isn’t just unhelpful, but it can also be detrimental to their income. During an experiment, the researchers found that every time women were forced to negotiate, their overall wages decreased.

“Women experience financial losses overall from being forced to always negotiate,” Exley wrote. “This is because when given a choice to avoid some negotiation opportunities, women appear to be choosing well.”

By “choosing well,” Exley means often choosing not to negotiate.

Plenty of experts—both men and women—have argued that women should “lean in” more and negotiate their salaries more aggressively. Exley and her coauthors, two other professors at top-tier research universities in the United States, decided to test whether or not it would really be beneficial for women to negotiate more.

They created an experiment designed to determine if and when male and female workers chose to enter negotiations, and whether the result was profits earned or lost. During the six-month-long experiment in 2013, “workers” and “firms” negotiated with one another through anonymous chat messages. The experiment was split into two scenarios: workers given the choice to negotiate and workers forced to negotiate. Negotiators kept their name, age, and gender hidden from the firms to eliminate the possibility of discrimination. The researchers also determined a “market value” for the workers so they could determine their salary ranges based on merit.

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Ultimately, wrote Exley, the takeaway from the study is that the popular belief that if women just negotiate more they will make more money is simply not true.

“Along with improving negotiation skills and helping individuals better assess what they bring to the table, we need to acknowledge that depending on skills, circumstances, and potential downsides, there may be cases where it is better not to ask,” she wrote.

With negotiation off the table, other methods of closing the gender wage gap, such as workplace initiatives to retain female employees and help them advance in the company, may be more beneficial.