Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

The research on unequal pay is clear. Women who graduate from elite MBA programs earn 93 cents on the dollar compared to their identically educated male colleagues, and they stand to miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers. In part, this is because women often choose not to negotiate their first job offer. What keeps them from doing so?

“They’re worried about the backlash,” says Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School and an expert on negotiating strategies. By asking for more money, she says, women are in danger of being perceived as “pushy” or “ungrateful.”

Unfortunately, the research shows that the backlash effect is real: male evaluators penalize female candidates more than male candidates for initiating a negotiation. Thompson says this is possibly due to a broader gender stereotype, according to which men are perceived as both “agentic” and “relational”—that is, they are able to pursue their own career goals while maintaining workplace relationships. For women, there is a perceived trade-off. Forced to choose between their bank accounts and their reputations, women are left between a rock and a hard place.

Thompson believes that women should not be afraid to negotiate. She says that while it is important to recognize that reputations are at stake and that women are often subject to an unfair bias, the backlash effect should not deter them from taking more initiative; her own career has benefitted from her decision to be agentic. “I guess what I’ve spent most of my time doing is choosing the hard place instead of the rock,” she says. Women do not always have control over workplace stereotypes, but they certainly have control over their own negotiation skills. “There are things you can change and things you can’t change. I focus on the things you can change.”

First, Thompson says, it is important to set appropriate goals. Research and plan your opening offer, know your market value, and remember that you are negotiating on behalf of your future self.

Also, when negotiating, it is important to do so in a way that emphasizes the benefits to the organization, and not just to yourself. “People in general are much more persuasive when they say, here is how I’m bringing value to the organization, and here’s what’s going to allow me to do that.”

Most importantly, women should choose to negotiate more often, rather than wait for the subject to come up. “One of my rules is never ask, ‘Is this negotiable?’ because that’s a yes or no question. It’s easy for people to say, ‘No, it’s not. Next question.’”

Being proactive is especially important because most interactions in the workplace are unscripted—what Thompson calls ambiguous negotiating situations. “Most negotiations are not as highly scripted as buying a house, buying a car, or meeting to discuss my salary,” Thompson says. “They are about other things in my life that can have a big impact on my subjective well-being.” Yet women do not take advantage of these ambiguous situations.

“I always tell females, you have to learn to write the script,” Especially, she says, now that we are moving into an economy where the job titles are changing constantly. As an example, Thompson points to Marne Levine, the COO of Instagram, whose job was inconceivable when she was just starting out. “Nobody gave her a script.”

“We can’t wait for the human brain to evolve,” Thompson says. “You’ve got to be the person who is helping people in the workplace define you.” This means choosing when to negotiate, knowing your own value, and making sure that your own personal policies are clear. “I think it’s really good to have policies, because then in moments of doubt, you can always say, ‘I’ve got to be true to my policies.’”

For Thompson, unequal pay is a problem that will not solve itself.  “I know that most people would like to think that when it comes to gender, we’re all evolving. Well, no. Let’s not get comfortable. Because the minute we think it’s solved, we stop working on it.”


Photo credit belongs to Mehmet Deveci. Published under a Creative Commons license.


Get the latest from Kellogg Insight delivered to your inbox.