Why women tend to negotiate their salary less than men

Across the world, there have been growing efforts to advance women and other minorities in organisations. Nevertheless, both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that women, compared to men, still negotiate less or ask for less when they do, which may then lead to lower salaries and other sup-optimal career outcomes.

My research has focused on two reasons that explain this difference. The first reason is related to a well-known backlash effect. When individuals behave differently from stereotypes based on their gender, race, age, or even physical, they are negatively evaluated and sometimes socially punished. Thus, women who are stereotyped to be communal may be very reluctant to initiate negotiations for a fear of rejection and negative feedback. The same mechanism can also explain why Asian or introvert individuals, who are stereotyped to compliant and non-assertive, negotiate less than their counterparts.

In addition to social pressures, individuals’ self-beliefs can also constrain their attitudes and behaviors. For example, in teaching negotiation courses, I have observed that some students just do not enjoy negotiations as they believe negotiation is something bad and greedy. Women, due to their peer culture highlighting communal and egalitarian relationships, may feel uncomfortable in negotiations. Additionally, individuals socialised in a collective culture may feel guilty negotiating with their colleagues or employers. Feelings of discomfort and guilt can lead to reduced entrance into negotiation.

Negotiation tips for those who are reluctant to negotiate

Not negotiating can be costly. According to regular surveys on the job tracking website Glassdoor, four out of ten employees are recorded as not negotiating on their salary, which may on average lead to 13% lower salaries. If talented women do not get senior positions simply because they negotiate less, it can be costly to organisations due to the fact that it blocks their own talent pipeline and fails to maximise the labour potential among employees.

Then what can we do to encourage women to engage more actively in negotiations at their work?

First, given the role of social fears and concerns in women’s reluctance in negotiations, organisations need to set up clear guidelines and procedures for job negotiations, especially for entry-level employees. For example, employers, at the point of making job offers, could make it clear to all recipients which parts are negotiable and what options are not in their initial packages. It might be difficult to apply a clear negotiation guideline to senior positions that can be filled by people with very different job specs and work tenure. In these cases, organisations can create a safe and fair environment where employees feel free and supported to discuss their needs/aims in their career prospect with their managers by issuing clear guidelines to everyone.

What about women or some individuals who just feel negative about negotiations when their environments are supportive and fair? Although our beliefs are developed in early socialisation, research suggests that awareness and change intentions are an effective step toward behavioral change. Building on this point, I suggest three ways that can help people approach negotiations differently.

First, revaluate your beliefs systems to open yourself up to the wide array of benefits negotiations can bring to yourself and organisations, not to mention the advantages for career success, and historical events have shown that negotiations can lead to creative solutions and win-win situations. Negotiations in general, even salary negotiations, are often a team problem solving process rather than conflicts or fights.

Second, consider taking seminars where you can participate in negotiations in low-stake situations. For the past few decades, negotiation simulations have turned out to be effective in building more confidence and knowledge tools in individuals. In case your workplaces do not offer such learning opportunities, you can seek such chances externally or simply do some role-playing with your friends or colleagues. For example, what about joining a local debate club? The more you practice negotiations, the easier and more enjoyable they become.

Finally, consider practicing ways to manage emotions. Feelings of discomfort or guilt, and any set of negative emotions that emerge during the negotiation can people of the chance to enjoy and learn from the process. There are rarely easy solutions for emotion management. But people can manage their emotions and attitudes through changing their self-narratives or even focusing more on their breathing. Hopefully my advice will help women and other individuals who have avoided negotiation situations at work so that they can thrive further, ultimately fulfilling their potential.





Sunny (Sun Young) Lee is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at UCL School of Management. Her research primarily focusses on gender differences in the workplace and biases and stereotyping in organisational decision making.