Psychology Plays Key Role in Women's Salary Negotiations

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Closing the gender gap between men and women's salaries could depend on better negotiation tactics, new research finds.

The study, by researchers at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities, shows that women can successfully negotiate higher salaries. But unlike men, they have to pay attention to the approach they use in order to avoid social backlash.

"The anticipation of social backlash or pay discrimination is taxing for women and undermining of their human potential," said the study authors, Harvard's Hannah Riley Bowles and Carnegie Mellon's Linda Babcock.

As part of the study, researchers had more than 400 participants watch a video in which a recently promoted female employee negotiated a new salary. In some of the videos, the woman expressed concern for her relationship with her manager, including phrases such as, "I hope it's OK to ask you about this," and, "My relationships with people here are very important to me." In others, she negotiated her salary while alluding to another offer she had received; in still other videos, she did both.

Researchers then asked participants a series of questions about whether they would enjoy working with the woman and if they would grant her the raise she requested.

Alluding to another offer increased the likelihood that the women would get the pay they desired, researchers found, and showing concern for business relationships helped mitigate social repercussions. However, combining these strategies was not successful and didn't help avoid social backlash.

In the second part of the study, the researchers showed 177 college-educated Americans with work experience short episodes in which female and male employees negotiated their salaries using different techniques. Researchers then asked the participants to rate their willingness to work with the negotiators, both male and female, as well as the participants' inclination to grant the requested compensation.

After watching episodes in which female negotiators legitimized their compensation requests and communicated concern for organizational relationships, the study's participants found the women to be more relational, found their requests for compensations to be more legitimate and did not socially punish them for negotiating higher pay.

Conversely, men who expressed the same relational concern as they negotiated were no more successful than when they used a direct-negotiation approach.

"While gender constraints are real, they are not inescapable," the authors said. "We expect men to be in charge because they are, and we expect men to earn more because typically they do … every woman who reduces the gender gap in pay and authority reforms the social structures that keep women in their place."

The study was recently published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

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