Tampa Bay Times

Above all, trust your instincts

- BY ARIANNE COHEN

Women negotiate just fine. Really. This is the finding of a recent largescale review study that looked at the most effective ways to address gender difference­s in negotiatio­n, scouring both academic research and workplace policy outcomes. It found that women do best at negotiatin­g when left to their own instincts.

“Our study says that women know when negotiatio­ns will benefit them, and seem to opt out of negotiatio­ns that are costly to them,” says Maria Recalde, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Melbourne and co-author of the National Bureau of Economic Research study.

This is, uh, not what we womenfolk have been told for the last decade or so. We have been told that we’re doing it wrong, that we’re leaving money on the table, and that we need to be more assertive. “That’s the easy answer for a lot of organizati­ons. They say, ‘Okay, let’s have a conversati­on with women. Let’s encourage them to be a little bit more assertive,’ ” Recalde says.

The typical advice: “Women should just ask, and they should get into more negotiatio­ns, and ask for pay raises and promotions, and reach out more, send those emails, and behave a little more like men,” Recalde said. Never mind that this is utterly paternalis­tic messaging being presented as fact. It must be womens’ fault. This misunderst­anding about female negotiatio­n is rooted in a classic case of correlatio­n not causation. Numerous studies have shown that women differ from men in their propensity to negotiate, as well as in their negotiatio­n tactics, and extensive data indicates wide gender gaps in pay and career trajectori­es. But does the former cause the latter? Wouldn’t it be convenient if it did? Little research indicates this. Media, corporate consultant­s and managers ran with it anyway.

Let’s clear up some facts: Being more assertive in negotiatio­ns does not usually work for women. Lise Vesterlund, a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, co-authored a National Bureau of Economic Research study that pushed women to negotiate more like men, and not only did that tactic not work, but women’s efforts backfired. In practice, this could damage work relationsh­ips and credibilit­y.

“A lot of the emphasis from both policymake­rs and organizati­ons has been on this fix-the-women approach,” Vesterlund says. But the study finds, “If we just train women to go in and be aggressive, like men, they will be perceived and treated differentl­y than the men. They experience a lot more backlash.”

Women do successful­ly negotiate when a potential gain is to be had, and women usually know when their situations can be improved upon. “We’re seeing that once women know what other people are making, they’re actually pretty good at securing similar wages,” Vesterlund says.

The solution, then, is not to change women, but to change the organizati­ons around them, which treat them differentl­y. The study identified policies that work best, like wage transparen­cy.

For your own negotiatio­ns, Recalde suggests proceeding with caution. Her advice:

Read. Try Linda Babcock’s book Women Don’t Ask, which lays out the general guide rails of negotiatin­g. Then read some more, about your industry and norms. Recalde emphasizes that the negotiatio­n timing and tactics that will work in a sales department will not necessaril­y work on an HR team in an advertisin­g or health care or apparel company.

Get informatio­n. What are the pay ranges, and how often can you reasonably request a salary increase? What strategies have worked for others in your department? What are typical career trajectori­es?

And above all, trust your gut. “You have the best understand­ing of your situation and what will benefit you, given the context in which you work and who you work with. So take all this informatio­n and make your own choice — don’t feel pressured to do something that may backfire.”

Women’s negotiatin­g style is not responsibl­e for the gender pay gap.

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