Knowing When to Ask: The Cost of Leaning-in

by Christine L. Exley, Muriel Niederle, and Lise Vesterlund

Overview — The popular push for women to “lean in” holds that women should negotiate on their own behalf to overcome the gender wage gap. This study, however, shows the importance of choice in successful negotiations. Women usually choose to enter negotiations leading to financial gains and avoid negotiations that would result in financial losses. Regardless of the reasons for avoidance, leaning-in is not automatically the best advice for women.

Author Abstract

Gender differences in the propensity to negotiate are often used to explain the gender wage gap, popularizing the push for women to “lean-in." We use a laboratory experiment to examine the effect of leaning-in. Despite men and women achieving similar and positive returns when they are forced to negotiate, we find that women avoid negotiations more often than men. While this suggests that women would benefit from leaning-in, a direct test proves otherwise. Women appear to positively select into negotiations and to know when to ask. By contrast, we find no significant evidence of such a positive selection for men.

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