To understand how gender affects differences in starting salaries and pay raises, Linda C. Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, constructed a very simple but very revealing experiment. Shankar Vedantam of The Washington Post reports:

Babcock brought 74 volunteers into a laboratory to play a word game
called Boggle. The volunteers were told they would be paid anywhere
from $3 to $10 for their time. After playing the game, each student was
given $3 and asked if the sum was okay. Eight times more men than women
asked for more money.

Babcock then ran the experiment a different
way. She told a new set of 153 volunteers that they would be paid $3 to
$10 but explicitly added that the sum was negotiable. Many more now
asked for more money, but the gender gap remained substantial: 58
percent of the women, but 83 percent of the men, asked for more.

The results have been confirmed in another, more complex study involving graduating master’s degree students — and they go a long way to explaining the persistent gender gap in salaries and promotions in the business world, which we’ve discussed in an earlier post.

But the reason for why women are more reluctant to negotiate for higher pay might surprise you. The conventional wisdom says that women either aren’t as tough or ambitious as men, aren’t willing to selfishly stand up for themselves like men are, or aren’t being properly trained by women’s studies departments.

Babcock, however, says women’s reluctance develops more from an "accurate" assessment of the bias they will face rather than any internal lack of motivation or skill.

A new study by Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, coauthored by Carnegie Mellon researcher Lei Lai, upsets the conventional wisdom:

Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not
trying to negotiate, this study found that women’s reluctance was based
on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to
be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly
penalize women who asked for more — the perception was that women who
asked for more were "less nice".

"What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing
to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman
who did not," Bowles said. "They always preferred to work with a woman
who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had
chosen to negotiate or not."

Babcock and Bowles ultimately hope their work will make it much more difficult to blame the victim:

"This isn’t about fixing the women," Bowles said. "It isn’t about
telling women, ‘You need self-confidence or training.’ They are
responding to incentives within the social environment."

The findings are published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (May 2007). You can catch a live chat at noon (EST) today with Bowles and Shankar Vedantam, who reported on this study and also writes a "Department of Human Behavior" column for the Washington Post. A transcript will be available after the chat.


Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • almostgotit August 10, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    The problem that needs addressing most is the whole social environment in which the risks of negotiating are demonstrably higher for women. Some of the salary inequities exposed by recent studies such as the one sponsored by the AAUW may seem small, especially as many still insist (without reflecting fully on the implications of their insistence) on placing full responsibility even for those inequities on the shoulders of the women concerned.
    But we’ve already been there. We already hold women “responsible” for damaging their own careers by choosing to be the sole-caregivers for their children or elderly parents. Which they must do without paid leave. And without resorting to damaging their spouse-and-co-parent’s career as well. (the highest paid workers of all are married men… most of whom are also fathers. Interesting?)
    As small as the real, “after-adjusting-for-female-foibles” salary inequities may be, even differences of a few percentage points over the lifetime of a person’s career can add up, literally, to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
    And that, simply, is not acceptable.

  • kyle July 30, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Years ago as the newly appointed department chair in a large university I learned that female faculty members had been hired at lower salaries than men with comparable experience. They were more apt to accept the offered salaries than to negotiate and seek increases. The study is right on target!