October 14, 2021
Written by Merrit Stueven, MPP ’22
Edited by Anisha Asundi, WAPPP Research Fellow, and
Moira Notarstefano, WAPPP Communications Manager

Intersecting identities, including gender and race, change not just how individuals negotiate but how others perceive and respond to their negotiation behavior.

The gender pay gap is a much-studied and analyzed phenomenon, with research helping us to understand how identities, including gender and race, intersect to create compounding disadvantages and determine the size of pay gaps. Another growing area of research helps us question how existing salary negotiation practices have helped shape and cement these pay gaps—and how changing negotiation practices could help close them.

At a recent talk for WAPPP’s “Intersectional Approaches to Gender Equity” seminar series, Dr. Negin Toosi outlined how negotiation behaviors and outcomes vary across race and gender. To better understand the context of her research, Dr. Toosi asked attendees to read the same description of a salary negotiation that participants in her study responded to; the example provided was adapted from Emily Amanatullah’s work previously conducted on this topic.

Seminar attendees were asked to think about what they would do if negotiating in the presented scenario, which provided some starting guidelines for expected salaries. For examples, what is the highest salary they would ask for and the lowest salary they would be willing to accept? If they could make a first offer in the negotiation, how much would it be? And how much did they think they could ask for without alienating the employer?

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These questions, for Dr. Toosi’s study participants, uncovered patterns along intersections of race and gender. Among both white and Black study participants, women negotiated less assertively than their male counterparts. However, for Asian Americans, the reverse was true. Dr. Toosi contextualized this finding in a discussion of cultural values, explaining that in some cultures, including Korea and China, communal values and an emphasis on relationships are dominant cultural traits. In contrast, cultures including the U.S. and Western Europe value a more independent and assertive approach.

Dr. Toosi argued that in all three cases, men—the dominant social group—are associated with the culture’s core values. This explains why for Asian American men, a more collaborative negotiation style was dominant while for white and Black men, the more assertive negotiation style was stronger. While the behaviors associated with the dominant cultural values are different across groups, men are associated with the more highly valued cultural traits and women are associated with less desirable cultural traits.

Dr. Toosi’s work builds on existing gender and negotiation behavior research, including work conducted by WAPPP co-director Hannah Riley Bowles. Professor Bowles’ research, featured on WAPPP’s Gender Action Portal, provides a foundation to understand these newer findings, contextualizing why women often hesitate to negotiate. For example, a 2007 study by Professor Bowles and co-authors Linda Babcock and Lei Lai found that women are penalized socially for wanting to negotiate their salaries at significantly higher rates than men. Similarly, women may be more likely to concede early in a negotiation because they are aware of the gendered penalties they may face, according to research by Emily Amanatullah and Michael Morris.

However, there are ways for women to mitigate the potential risks of negotiating. In another study from 2013, Professor Bowles and Linda Babcock found women can improve their negotiation outcomes by explaining their choice to negotiate. By saying they were encouraged to negotiate by a supervisor or that they hope their ability to negotiate is seen as an asset for the job, women were able to negotiate higher salaries while also reducing the social penalty for choosing to negotiate.

As we collectively work to close the global gender pay gap, researchers and policymakers continue to explore how identity shapes negotiation behavior and how inequities in salary negotiation can be decreased. An intersectional approach to this work, as taken by Dr. Toosi, is essential for helping all women and people of marginalized gender identities achieve equal pay.