Women Prefer Jobs with Clear Rules on Negotiation

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A new working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that women are more likely to apply for jobs where negotiation is explicitly anticipated.

The study supports a theory that women prefer work environments with an unambiguous set of rules about compensation, whereas men tend to prefer environments where that set of rules is less defined. “This leads to the gender gap being much more pronounced in jobs that leave negotiation of wage ambiguous,” write the authors, Andreas Liebbrandt of Monash University in Australia and John A. List, of the University of Chicago.

Liebbrandt and List found that women were more likely to submit applications to job openings that indicated the salary was negotiable. They were just as willing to negotiate as the men who applied for these jobs.

We’ve heard the women-blaming maxim time and time again that “women don’t ask.” But this study actually shows that women do ask – as long as the rules of the game are clear. Research has shown that women who do negotiate for their salary are sometimes penalized for not adhering to gender norms around assertiveness. This study suggests that, in general, women are aware of this factor, and avoid jobs where they could get snared in the negotiation double bind: if you don’t ask, you don’t get …but if you do ask, you could get labeled a “difficult woman” or a few other choice words that could slow your career down.

By disclosing that negotiation is anticipated, hiring managers send a signal to women that the playing field may be closer to fair.

The Research

The study is based on an experiment. The researchers posted job advertisements for administrative assistant positions in nine different cities. In each city, they posted two different advertisements for the job – one that was designed to appear “gender neutral” and one that was designed to be “gender coded.” The gender neutral job gave a few details on the position indicating it involved fundraising. The gender coded job added it would deal heavily with work in the stereotypically male environment of sports – “basketball, football, baseball, soccer, Nascar, golf, tennis, hockey.”

As anticipated, fewer women applied for jobs with the “male” description. Overall, according to the paper, almost 2,500 people responded to the ads – and this is when the negotiation factor came into play. Applicants received a questionnaire to fill out in order to move onto the next application stage. The questionnaire listed the wage (which was slightly higher than the average rate for the job) and then either left it at that or indicated that the wage was negotiable.

Female job seekers who received a questionnaire indicating a negotiable wage were more likely to continue on with the application. They were also just as likely as men to negotiate their wage. Women were also more likely to negotiate when responding to the gender neutral job ad than the gender coded (sports) ad, which also indicates that the perceived work environment may have an effect on how likely women are to negotiate.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to sort themselves out of jobs that explicitly said the wage was negotiable.

(Anecdotally, it is interesting to note that the researchers weren’t simply wasting the time of job seekers with this experiment – they did end up hiring candidates from this job pool for administrative positions.)

Acknowledging a Double Bind

Liebbrandt and List believe the research suggests that women are very aware of the double bind they may face when negotiating. According to the results of this experiment, they may be more likely than men to apply for jobs in a work environment that makes it explicitly clear that negotiation is “okay” – and they are more likely to negotiate for their wage. The authors explain:

“In sum, therefore, we find that women prefer job environments where the ‘rules of wage determination’ are concrete, and in such settings they are at least as willing to negotiate as men. Alternatively, men prefer environments where the rules of wage determination are ambiguous because it is in those settings where they reap a disproportionate amount of the surplus, relative to women, because they negotiate more than women.”

Pesky “unwritten” cultural rules so often favor individuals in the dominant group – and in the case of many workplaces that group is men. Explicitly stating the rules – in this case, that negotiation is expected – may encourage women to apply, because the work environment will appear more fair. Similarly, stating that negotiation is expected can help remind managers to assess these situations more fairly. By making compensation rules transparent, companies could attract and retain more high performing female employees who may be likely to go elsewhere if they find their work environment isn’t fair.

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