A Nuanced Approach to Leaning In

April 15, 2014


Harvard Kennedy School Senior Lecturer Hannah Riley Bowles discussed her research on gender in negotiations and offered advice for women trying to negotiate higher pay on the Kennedy School’s weekly podcast series “HKS PolicyCast.”

“What we’ve found in numerous studies is that women pay a higher social cost from negotiating assertively for compensation than do men,” said Bowles in the HKS interview.

Bowles also went on to discuss the importance of open information and why the Obama administration’s recent moves to address the gender wage gap are a positive development.

The following transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

MC: Hello, and welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Matt Cadwallader, and today we’re joined by Kennedy School Senior Lecturer, Hannah Riley Bowles, whose research is focused on gender and negotiation. Hannah, thanks for joining us.

HRB: Thanks for having me.

MC: Your research is somewhat provocative in that, instead of asking women to lean in and be as aggressive as men in negotiating for higher pay, women need to take a more nuanced approach. Can you explain that?

HRB: Our research is actually profiled in Cheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I think she would think negotiation is really part of the lean in strategy. So I wouldn’t want to be sending a message that women shouldn’t lean in. But I’m happy to say I agree with you: It’s a little more complicated, particularly around negotiating for things for yourself.

A lot of women feel a sense of nervousness or reticence - maybe even icky feeling - and one of the things that I’ve tried to show in my research is that actually, that feeling isn’t about some sort of lack of competence or self-confidence. It actually reflects an accurate reading of the social situation. What we’ve shown in research is that when a man and a woman attempt to assertively negotiate for pay, both of them seem less likeable, as compared to if they didn’t negotiate for pay, little more demanding, but for women, in particular, people feel disinclined to work with the same woman if they’ve seen her negotiate, as compared to if they just see her on a video in which she declines an opportunity to negotiate. So we call that a kind of social cost of negotiation.

What we’ve found in numerous studies is that women pay a higher social cost from negotiating assertively for compensation than do men. If you’re heading into a negotiation, you have to think about not only what you can get out of the negotiation, but also, what are the social implications? If women have to weigh greater social cost against what they could get out of the negotiation, then it’s actually quite reasonable for them to have some reticence, some hesitance heading into a compensation negotiation, and more so than men.

MC: It seems like this is a pretty unfair situation. Is that something that is based on societal norms and can thus be changed? Or is that something that we’re just kind of stuck with?

HRB: I think that they’re based on societal norms, and they are traditional norms. I think they will change. I think we’re still in a period of transition of women into the highest echelons of leadership in the public and private sectors, you know, of women being the top-paid employees, women occupying the highest paid occupations. So to some extent it does have to do with the traditional division of labor - this kind of traditional expectation that men tend to be in the leadership positions, the highest positions of authority, and the highest paying jobs.

A lot of my research more recently has been focused on how women can do this so that they don’t get that nervous feeling, and they can go in and get what they want and make the impression that they want. And I think that as women do that over time, this effect will go away because we’ll have a greater expectation to see women in those top positions and see women in the highest paid positions.

MC: So, what are some of those recommendations that you’ve come up with?

HRB: One of them - going back to Cheryl’s book - Cheryl has taken our research and calls it a “think I, talk we” strategy. Academically, we call it “relational accounts” but I think “Think I, Talk We” is catchier and is easier for people to hold in their heads. The essence of it is that by “think I,” what she’s saying is: don’t give up on what you want. You need to have very clear aspirations. Do your research, figure out what you really want going into the negotiation. But when you walk into the negotiation, you want to frame what you have to say in “we” terms, not just “I” terms. And what we’ve found in our research is that women can both get what they want and make the impression that they want if they do two things, and one is to explain to the person that they’re negotiating with why they’re negotiating - why what they’re asking for should be legitimate in their eyes. Not your own eyes, right?

MC: Right.

HRB: ‘Cause you have a lot of reasons why you think what you’re asking for is legitimate. What you need to think about is why it should be legitimate in their eyes. And then you also want to signal that you are thinking about organizational relationships - that you are thinking in “we” terms. You want to build the relationship. That irks some people because they think, “oh, you’re asking women to fulfill the feminine stereotype,” and I’m sympathetic with that critique. But I, frankly, think most of us do want to maintain relationships in organizations. It’s not inauthentic for most of us to signal that.

Cheryl’s got this great example in her book where she talks about negotiating compensation when she had been offered the position of COO of Facebook. As a lot of women describe, she had this kind of nervous feeling. She didn’t want to negotiate. She thought she was going to queer the deal.

And as she describes, I think it was her brother-in-law told her, no, you cannot not negotiate this. A guy would never let this pass. So she walked in and she did something really clever: she went in and she said to them, “you’ve hired me to head your deal teams, right? So, you want me to be a good negotiator, right?”

That’s that legitimate part: “In your eyes, you should think this is a good thing if I’m prone to negotiation.” Then she went on to say, “and this is the last time you and I are going to be seated across the table from one another.” Signaling that “we” voice. What was fun when I connected with Cheryl around her book and she wanted to talk about negotiation, was that what she was advising was very consistent with what we were finding in our research in the laboratory. So it was a really nice example where the best intuition around practice comes together with the research findings.

MC: It seems like a lot of this negotiation takes place around pay, but is it applicable in other ways in terms of women’s work lives?

HRB: I’m so glad you asked that. I actually think, frankly, that we over-emphasize pay. I think, particularly in this post-great recession period, a lot of employers actually can’t pay more. There are people who are accepting jobs by necessity for less money than they had been making in the past. I think probably as important to your long-term earnings as a little bit more money at organizational entry or certain promotion points, is that you be really smart about negotiating your career. Particularly if you’re going in to a position - this happens to a lot of us in the public sector - where you’re not getting the pay that you might ideally want. I think that’s a great opportunity to be negotiating for the types of experiences, the positions, the learning and growth opportunities, the exposure opportunities that you would like to see in order to get yourself in that next position where you want to take your career.

I think that this strategy is good negotiating advice in general: to take on the other side’s perspective and to think about the relationship, as well as whatever you’re going to get out of the negotiation. That’s good advice for men, as well as women. The bonus of our research is that we’re showing that it may be even more beneficial to women than men. It helps overcome this women’s compensation negotiation dilemma: “how do I trade off what cost I could incur socially against what I could gain.”

I think the strategy is a great one to use generally and I really think it is important that people think - for their long-term earnings and for their careers - much more broadly about their negotiating. If I may, I could tell you the results of a recent survey that we did at the Simmons Women’s Leadership Conference. We surveyed participants about a recent career-related negotiation. About 80 percent of the people who completed the survey had an example that they could immediately provide in the survey, and 45 percent of those negotiations were actually ongoing, so I think that gives us a sense that women certainly negotiate in the workplace. We gave them a list of 20 different things that you might negotiate over, opportunities as well as barriers in the workplace, and the top four or five things that women reported negotiating for were not about compensation. They were about new leadership positions, promotions, changing one’s work assignment or expanding one’s authority. That’s really what these senior executives were talking about, that they were focused on negotiating. Now, interestingly, they were also talking about negotiating those, you know, pinches in the workplace; feeling like you’re being overlooked or not sufficiently appreciated.

There’s a lot of things that I think you can negotiate and I’d like women to feel like that it’s not the case that women don’t ask. There is definitely a gender gap in the propensity to ask around compensation, but women are great negotiators. They’re fabulous negotiators on behalf of others. They can take that talent and apply it to themselves, and not just think about money, but a much broader array of things.

MC: So, I’m curious about the research that kind of led you to these conclusions. How are you actually getting at this information?

HRB: Most of the research that I have done has been in the lab. So, as an example, to show you how we found this, documented this women’s compensation negotiation dilemma, we did studies, sometimes they were just pen-and-paper, you’d see the resume of a candidate with a gender neutral name. And then you’d get interview notes about whether, indicating that the person was a he or a she, and whether or not they had negotiated. That was our first study that we did. In subsequent studies, what we started doing was hiring actors, professional actors, to come in and in the no negotiation condition they would speak for a couple of minutes answering an interviewers’ questions about their background. They were just about to be placed into a new management position. And then in the negotiation condition, participants would see exactly that same two minutes, but at the end of the two minutes the interviewer says, you know, have you received your salary and benefits package? Now, in the no negotiation condition, the employee simply says, yes, I have, everything looks great. I’m, geographically I’m unconstrained. Something like that.

In the negotiation condition, the employee says, everything looks great, geographically I’m unconstrained, but I do have some questions about the salary and bonus, and then they go on to attempt to negotiate. And, so, what participants see is either a man or a woman, and we have multiple female and multiple male actors, they see either a man or a woman, and then they see that person either negotiate or not, and then we kind of compare the impressions that are created by the women who negotiate as compared to the women who don’t. It’s always the same actors. And the men who negotiate and the men who don’t. Now, men can overdo this too, but we tend to find a bigger social cost for women for negotiating assertively than men.

In the subsequent studies around strategies, where we came up with the relational accounts or the “think I, talk we,” we had actors who attempted to negotiate using different types of negotiating strategies, and then we looked at the impressions that they created, and then the effectiveness of those strategies in terms of people’s, you know, propensity to give them what they ask for, and their inclination to work with them.

MC: So, I also want to get into a little bit of the policy implications of this. Just recently, the White House put out an executive order which banned federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss pay and opened up more information about what people are being paid. It’s been heralded as a move to try and decrease the gender wage gap, but it does sound like kind of a small, incremental measure. Is it something that is valuable? Is it something that’s worth doing?

HRB: Yeah, oh, definitely. In fact, there’s a really good research basis for that. So, in studies that are both archival, for instance we’ve looked at the outcomes of NBA salary outcomes, coming on the job market, and we’ve also looked in experimental studies, where people will come in and negotiate against one another. What we’ve found is that gender effects - stereotypic gender effects where men will get more money from the negotiation than women - are more likely to occur when there’s ambiguity about what is up for negotiation. When men and women have the same information about what’s negotiable, you tend to see the gender effects go away. And it’s really interesting, it’s not only ambiguity about what the standards are for negotiation - what constitutes a good salary or fair salary, or certain types of opportunities - but it also relates to, what are the norms for how one negotiates around here. When it’s ambiguous - how do you negotiate or whether one should negotiate - you tend to see gender differences in reticence about negotiating. But if you make it clear to - and this is actually research by colleagues of mine - MBA students what the norms are in terms of negotiating salary at a particular company where they’ve been given an offer, then the gender effects go away altogether.

Ambiguity matters because it’s in ambiguity that we’re not sure how to act in the situation, and so we search the environment for queues as to what to do. What is the right standard? How should I comport myself? So as we search the environment, our own mental scheme, our own memories, gender has more of an opportunity to influence our expectations. We’re all aware of these stereotypes and so we’re more likely to think, “How should I, as a woman, behave in here? Rather than just as an MBA or a person.

Another really interesting research related to this issue of transparency with regard to standards… Can I deviate and tell you a quick study?

MC: Sure, go for it.

HRB: Okay, great. So, there’s this research by this woman, Brenda Major, who found what’s called “the entitlement effect.” I always tell this as a story about being wary about how gender can influence your information search as well as what happens at the negotiating table. What she found was that women have lower long-term pay expectations than do men. And then they ran these studies and they found in these studies, they brought men and women to the lab to do some gender neutral task, and they found that women worked longer and harder than men for equivalent pay and paid themselves less for equivalent labor.

MC: Huh.

HRB: Huh, exactly. So then they said, “ let’s give them some information with regard to what other people pay themselves.” Just like with my studies, once you gave them clear information, both men and women paid themselves the same, on average. However, they said, “okay, instead of just giving you the information, you can look up what other people paid themselves.”

What happened was the female participants looked at what Ellen, Jane, and Sally had paid themselves, and the male participants looked at what Joe, Mark, and Ed had paid themselves. If it’s ambiguous what you should be asking for, and women tend to consult women, and men tend to consult men, and men are, on average, paid more than women they’re going to come up with different numbers. It’s not discrimination; it’s just how the search for information itself can be gendered.

So, what’s terrific, I think, about enhancing transparency, is that you don’t need to do away with stereotypes or change the whole structure of society. It’s just simply by giving people better information you can undo, better information, non-gendered information, just clear, the best information, everybody’s got the same information, you can do away with these gender effects.

MC: And what kind of information gets rid of that ambiguity? Are you just talking about salaries or is there other stuff?

HRB: So, for instance, yeah, information on pay scales. I remember talking to a graduate student some years ago who was negotiating a post-doctoral position and she was negotiating the job and she just happened to get a flyer that said that post-docs can negotiate for summer salary, and if she hadn’t received the flyer, she never would have asked for summer salary, which is actually a big…

MC: Yeah, that’s huge.

HRB: Which is, you know, that’s three months of your pay out of the year. So she ended up, just by virtue of having seen the flyer, increasing her compensation by a third or a quarter or something like that.

MC: Wow.

HRB: So, I mean, I think it’s about training opportunities. It’s about pay. I think you could even think more broadly about career tracks. It doesn’t also have to always be, so, pay and things like that is information that you can kind of make public. I think it’s really important that they were going to say you can’t penalize employees for sharing information about their pay. That seems like also an important step in the right direction. But I’ve also talked to chief talent officers and HR people who’ve said, you know, geez, I could provide some of that information to people. If you, if they went to me, I’m not going to tell them exactly what everybody makes, but I can tell them what the appropriate range is.

I can tell them what other people have negotiated. That’s another important thing to think about, even if the information you need isn’t publicly available: find some people who can help provide you with some of that background about what are the appropriate standards, what’s up for negotiation. That reduces the ambiguity. That reduces the potential for gender differential outcomes in negotiation.

MC: So, if women are able to take anything away from this episode, this interview, “Think I, Talk We,” is there anything else that you would add to that?

HRB: Yeah, I would. What I’ve been increasingly building from the lab studies and the archival studies are interviews with executives about how they negotiate their careers. I would love for women to walk away with a broad imagination of what they might negotiate. I mean, think really widely about how do you think about negotiating your career, and as you do that, and as you talk to your employer again, it’s taking on your employer’s perspective. If you see strategically, a direction that you think the company should be going, a role that you would like to play, start having those conversations. When we run our lab studies, people are typically talking for about 20 minutes in a conversation with one other person. But when I talk to executives about their career negotiations, they tend to go on for weeks, if not months, sometimes years. And when I ask who they negotiated with, it’s multiple people. So a lot of career negotiation is really about an ongoing conversation with your supporters and your superiors about where you want to head, and looking for those win-win opportunities.

MC: Well, Hannah Riley Bowles, thank you so much for being on PolicyCast today.

HRB: Oh, thank you for having me.

Hannah Riley Bowles

Hannah Riley Bowles, senior lecturer in public policy

“What we’ve found in numerous studies is that women pay a higher social cost from negotiating assertively for compensation than do men,” said Bowles.


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