Why Women Can’t Negotiate for Equal Pay

A negative attitude toward women asking for money punishes those who “lean in” to the tug of war over salary.

I have been reviewing the most recent research on women negotiating salaries. The popular wisdom—that women don’t ask, that women don’t ask nicely enough, that women are poor negotiators—on the issue is out of date. So, I decided my contribution to Equal Pay Day would be to share the direction of travel for that research. Because I am summarizing a body of work—and because you must have access to a university subscription to see most of it—I am not putting in links to the actual studies, but have instead listed a few key references at the end of this post.

Back in 2007, a book called Women Don’t Ask made a big splash. The authors said that women, unlike men, do not try to negotiate for more money. And that, very simply, was why women are paid less. Solution? Women should just “lean in” and demand higher salaries for themselves.

As several subsequent studies have now shown, there is a very good reason women do not try to negotiate for higher salaries. Asking for money is not seen as appropriate behavior for women. Neither is the assertion of one’s own value that must be made behind the request. So, women anticipate that there will be social backlash if they push for more money. They might lose the job. Even if they still get the job, the employer won’t be as happy about having them. If they are in the job already, women fear that asking for more money will cost them the support of mentors, alienate colleagues, and so on.

It turns out these fears are well placed. As research has now demonstrated time and again, women who ask for more money are, indeed, punished. Further, they are not given increases when they try to negotiate—pretty much no matter what they say or how they ask.

The studies all have been conducted by scholars at prestigious schools and published in respected, peer review journals. The bulk are well-controlled experiments, in which both men and women try to negotiate salaries with “employers” (also females as well as males). Scripts and videos are used so that “the ask” is the same across all instances. The men and women are given exactly the same “qualifications.” Various requests and manner of asking have been tested.

When I looked for stock images to illustrate this piece, I found that most images around women asking for money were set in the home between husbands and wives. I chose this one because of the limbo background, thinking you could read it either way. But I think it is worth thinking about. In the not too distant past, women did not work for pay and therefore had to beg men for the things they needed. Perhaps today’s workplace attitude is rooted here.  Maybe it’s not just that women are not supposed to want money.  Maybe they are not supposed to have it.

The “employers” consistently reverse their opinions of female candidates when an attempt is made to negotiate salary. They then do not award the higher salary—and feel completely justified in their decision. This happens whether the employer is male or female, but it does not happen when the candidate is male. This phenomenon is purely an effect of gender. People flatly don’t like it when women ask for money.

There are a few interesting auxiliary findings in this body of research. For instance, the less transparency surrounding pay parameters, the worse the women do. Having another offer doesn’t help: while the ask is seen as more legitimate if there is another offer, employers do not necessarily counteroffer in response. One much-hyped study argued that women could win negotiations if they asked nicely enough. Specifically, women had to phrase the ask as something that was for the benefit of the whole organization. That is, you had to convince the employer that it would be a good thing for them if they paid you more. The limits of this approach should be obvious: asking for more money is inherently more in your interest than your employer’s and trying to make it seem otherwise can look disingenuous and manipulative (because it is). Such strategies especially look weird if you are also trying to dangle an outside offer.

The research also consistently shows that women are actually equal or better negotiators than men except when negotiating their own salaries. So, lower pay for women is not a function of poorer negotiating skills. (Indeed, the notion that women could up their game by making it sound like they were doing it for the good of the organization resulted from the consistent finding that women do very well negotiating for others—because helping others fits with the gender norm.)

In most countries, the pay gap is higher at the top of the pay scale. That is probably because these salaries have to be negotiated. Source: OECD Closing the Gender Gap, 2011.

As a consequence of the rightly perceived risk of asking for more money up front, women choose a strategy of accepting a lower salary at the outset, counting on being able to get raises through superior performance. This strategy sometimes works out, but often does not. It is hard to close the initial gap because increases are given as a percentage of current salary. Anything more must be negotiated—and the whole “women are not supposed to care about money” mindset comes right back into play at that point.

This research explains several phenomena we see in the actual workplace. For instance, it explains why the gender gap is higher at upper pay levels—these salaries are inevitably set in secret negotiation, rather than being part of a transparent payscale. It also explains why the pay gap is greater for occupations where getting or managing money is the job.

This research also helps explain why, in samples where job content and pay level is controlled for, the pay gap still exists. For instance, this week’s announcement of the study showing that American universities pay female professors less, regardless of topical discipline and rank, tells us the “women don’t do STEM” argument is not an excuse: the people are matched by both topic and rank, yet the pay gap is there no matter what. My own analysis of the pay gap in business schools also shows this pattern. The American Association of University Women study released a few years ago showed that, in their first job after college, young women make 18% less than young men, even after controlling for their major.

Unequal pay is not a matter of what you do, what your rank is, how much seniority you have, or how nicely you ask—it is a matter of the negative attitudes on the other side of the table toward women wanting money.

As I was reviewing all this work, it was interesting to see how the research community’s thinking was evolving and how, in parallel, the work was being played back (or ignored) in the popular press. On the one hand, the academics now simply recognize, right up front in their literature review, that there is a prejudice against women asking for money, which is why they make less. The result has been too consistent for anyone to make a persuasive case otherwise. However, as the researchers try to explore the impact of various conditions and strategies, the press only picks up when there seems to be a solution. If they can say “here is what women can do differently,” it makes a story. What does not make a story is the larger truth that is emerging.

These stats show that the occupations where women suffer a bigger pay gap are high prestige jobs and those that focus on money or require you to ask for money.  The jobs where the pay gap is less are more likely to be “feminine” jobs, but also jobs where pay grades are transparent and set.

This selective reporting seems to be driven by a desire to appear “positive,” but what it does is to feed the belief that women are doing something wrong, must be in some way inadequate. As long as it can be made to look like women just need to be taught something, unequal pay can be made to appear justified—even to be something women deserve. However, the overriding finding points to an entirely different way of seeing it: to locate the source of the problem in the employer who holds the prejudice, rather than in the candidate’s negotiating strategy. That is the direction in which all the evidence points, but no one seems to want to look there.

The practical next steps would change if the society were to acknowledge this evidence. Instead of giving women “assertiveness training,” we would focus on teaching the negotiators to acknowledge their own biases. But, since other studies show that this bias is very hard to dislodge, we would also set up monitoring systems to ensure compensation remained broadly equal. Until that happens, unequal pay will persist.

Whether we are talking casually over dinner, speaking formally with a personnel officer, or addressing arguments in a lawsuit, it should no longer be acceptable to say that a woman deserves a lower salary than a man because he negotiated better than she did. The poor negotiation outcomes occur because of gender, not because of the strategy or tone. The process of negotiation itself is so utterly shot through with uneven gender expectations that this cannot be a legitimate defense of unfair pay practice.


Emily T. Amanatullah and Michael W. Morris (2010), “Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 256-267.

Emily T. Amanatullah and Catherine H. Tinsley (2012), “Punishing Female Negotiators for Asserting Too Much. . . Or Not Enough,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120, 110-122.

Lisa A. Barron (2003), “Ask and You Shall Receive? Gender Differences in Negotiators’ Beliefs about Requests for a Higher Salary,” Human Relations, 56 (6), 635-662.

Hannah Riley Bowles and Linda Babcock (2013), “How Can Women Escape the Compensation Negotiation Dilemma? Relational Accounts Are One Answer,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37 (1), 80-95.

Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Kathleen L. McGinn (2006), “Constraints and Triggers: Situational Mechanics of Gender in Negotiation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89 (6), 951-965.

Catherine H. Tinsley, Sandra I. Cheldelin, Andrea Kupfer Schneider, and Emily T. Amanatullah (2009), “Women at the Bargaining Table: Pitfalls and Prospects,” Negotiation Journal, April, 233-248.

Deborah M. Kolb (2009), “Too Bad for the Women or Does It Have to Be? Gender and Negotiation Research over the Past Twenty-Five Years,” Negotiation Journal, October, 515-531.

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