Negotiating Challenges for Women Leaders

When negotiating compensation, women often sell themselves short. Some practical advice on claiming the power to lead in this interview with HBS professor Kathleen L. McGinn and Harvard's Hannah Riley Bowles.
by Martha Lagace

Women don't have a problem developing an effective leadership style. What they do struggle with more than men, however, is claiming the authority to lead, according to Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen L. McGinn. The gender gap in leadership is the focus of "Claiming Authority: Negotiating Challenges for Women Leaders," a chapter in the forthcoming book Psychology of Leadership: Some New Approaches, edited by David Messick and Roderick Kramer (Lawrence Erlbaum Press).

As influential experts on negotiation who examine these questions from an economic perspective, Riley Bowles and McGinn believe that negotiation skills are crucial to closing the gender gap in leadership. Riley Bowles, who earned her doctoral degree from Harvard Business School, is an assistant professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. McGinn is a professor and a director of research at HBS. Below, excerpts from an interview.

Lagace: What is an example of an experiment you've conducted that looks at differences in how women and men negotiate?

McGinn: One of the interesting first pieces of data we looked at was job offers to MBA graduates. Once we controlled for a whole bunch of things such as industry and other variables, we found that men and women didn't tend to negotiate very different salaries, especially in industries where salaries were normative. But men and women did negotiate differently for other packages. And a question comes up: Why would that be? Why, when women were going in and getting the top salary on the list when they knew what the range is, wouldn't they be negotiating as big bonuses, as generous moving allowances, those sorts of things?

One of the big differences that Hannah first realized was that there are some situations that are much more ambiguous. If you go back into economic sociology studies and studies of wage gaps, you find that you can pull out those situations that are fairly unambiguous and say that there aren't gaps. But if you go into those situations and industries in which there is quite a bit of ambiguity, you start to see wage gaps.

Q: What are the root causes of these differences in negotiation success?

Riley Bowles: What some studies do is look at salary and control for a whole bunch of things: How many years of experience the subjects had, what program they were from, what industry they went into, what job function they had, how many interviews they got, how many job offers they got, et cetera. And then you still find a gap. In the past, people thought, if there is still a gap and you've controlled for all these factors that might explain why people would get different salaries, it must be just: "Discrimination. How else would you possibly explain it?"

Instead of waiting for the tectonic plates of society to shift, we would rather ask what we can do in the interim. How can we change the situation through negotiation?
— Hannah Riley Bowles

We're not saying gender discrimination doesn't exist. But we are saying, you know, there's a behavioral explanation to this as well.

We want to make clear: this is not to blame women. Our perspective is that, instead of waiting for the tectonic plates of society to shift, we would rather ask what we can do in the interim. How can we change the situation through negotiation? That's a big motivation for us.

When we think about what might make women walk into a negotiation with, say, lower expectations than men, one of the explanations for that comes from social psychology. It's called the entitlement effect. That research shows that in conditions of ambiguity, if you bring men and women into the lab and you say either one of two things: "Work until you think you've earned the $10 we just gave you," or "Work and then tell us how much you think you deserve," the women work longer hours with fewer errors for comparable pay, and pay themselves less for comparable work. But if there's a standard [that men and women know], then this result goes away.

This entitlement effect is a little hard to understand. Some of it is linked to perceived deservedness: In ambiguity, women perceive that they deserve less than men.

Another explanation, though, is that men are a lot more likely to compare themselves to men, and women are a lot more likely to compare themselves to women. And so if you look around society and try to figure out how much to pay yourself, women are comparing themselves to a group that on average makes less money than the men. So in conditions of ambiguity when you're trying to fill in the blanks, the standard that the women are looking at is probably lower, on average, than the standard for the men.

McGinn: I think another important factor is actually lost in most of the other research on this. There is not just an effect of ambiguity. There is an effect of ambiguity where there's a "gender trigger" in the environment. We could argue for a long time where these triggers come from, but they tell women "You're worth less," or "This isn't a situation where you should push." Or, "Why don't you let the guy do this one?"

In many situations, and importantly, in the situations of leadership that Hannah and I describe in the book chapter, those are very frequently gendered situations. They are situations in which the stereotypical leader—and all the historical leaders and the definitions of what you should be doing—tend to be masculine or male. And with those triggers present, if there's ambiguity about who should be claiming resources, well, the environment tells you who should be claiming more resources. It's him.

And in fact when I look around and see what the other women are doing, and this goes back to Hannah's point that we tend to compare ourselves to others like ourselves—if I go into a situation and I compare myself to other women, well, I actually look like I'm being quite aggressive. So even if I am feeling entitled to those resources, I might put a check on my own behavior because of the triggers in the environment.

It is possible that at some point in time these triggers will be gone. ... One of the premises in the chapter and involved in other research we do is that it is often expectations, attitudes, and values that follow behavior, rather than the opposite.

So to the extent that we can inform women about situations in which they should be hypersensitive to opportunities for claiming resources and claiming authority, then they might be more likely to do so and thereby start to change the beliefs and the values that go around [resources and authority]—with the hope that the effects on both ends go away: Women won't see themselves as less entitled, and therefore aren't treated as less entitled.

Q: How should women put this knowledge into practice?

McGinn: Be more prepared to the extent that you can reduce gender triggers. There are situations in which you can reposition the bargaining in a way that is not gendered. For example, if I see an opportunity for leadership, and believe that in that position of leadership I can attain additional value for those who would be working with me, then I can face the negotiation not as grabbing everything for myself but rather as an opportunity to increase the value for a whole bunch of people. That tends to demasculinize the situation.

To the extent that you can reduce gender triggers in the environment, organizations should do that for everyone.
— Kathleen McGinn

Even concerning salary negotiations, we hear women say, "I don't want people to think I'm too aggressive." But if you flip that around, the perception of you when you don't negotiate is much more negative than the perception of you when you do negotiate. So in wanting everyone to look positively on our behavior—which is a stereotype—one of the things we can do is ask, "How am I really going to be perceived if I don't negotiate?" If you don't negotiate for your salary, they walk away happy that they paid you less but wonder why they hired you.

Riley Bowles: A root cause, in addition to entitlement, relates to social role or behavioral expectations within society. We do have a greater expectation of niceness from women than from men. There's a body of research showing that when women step into the realm of stereotypically masculine behavior and need to use an authoritative or directive leadership style, or need to aggressively claim, saying, "You should give me more money and resources," that this doesn't feel right coming from a woman. There's some research that shows there's a backlash to women stepping into these masculine roles.

But another factor may be that the audience is the self. That you've got a way that you like to think of yourself behaving. Even if you're not afraid of a backlash from somebody else, you may think of this as a category of behavior that you just don't like engaging in. So one suggestion is that you might think about reframing the situation, and saying, "For me to do what I need to do for my team, I'm going to need X, Y and Z resources." Or, go back to preparation. You can find benchmarks. Figure out, from whatever information is available, what the appropriate standards are for being paid at your level of experience or rank within the organization, et cetera.

Another avenue to feeling comfortable in the role or to get information is to think about your social network. Who are you connected to within or outside the organization? Are you connected to folks who can give you a sense of what people are paid in positions in different organizations and within your organization? And again, if men hang around with men, and ask each other what they're making, and men are making more on average, then talking with their friends in their social network may lead them to naturally land on a different figure than if women are talking with women friends. You have to think strategically about your social network.

McGinn: Part of looking at benchmarks is recognizing that both men and women have socio-emotional support networks. It just happens that men's socio-emotional support networks are the guys that they work with. Women have social networks with the guys that they work with, but those are not their socio-emotional support networks.

What ends up happening is that while I hang with the guys at work, those are not the people I talk to about how to negotiate this or that, nor do I ask, "What do you think I should get paid?" or say, "I'm having a rough struggle with this and that." There is not the same kind of emotional bond across gender. It's obviously difficult to have tight emotional bonds across gender.

Q: Given what you're learning about gender and negotiation, do you think companies should use company policy to actively make allowances for different negotiation styles of men and women?

McGinn: Giving women more on their first offer is presuming a main effect. It is presuming that because this is a woman, she can't do it for herself so "I'll do it for her." So in that sense, no, I don't think organizations should have policies like that.

On the other hand, to the extent that you can reduce gender triggers in the environment, organizations should do that for everyone. I often say that I think men are actually the ones who have it harder in terms of expectations and a constant struggle to get to the top. Is that really what all men want? I think organizations should have ways in which the awareness is heightened to when those gender triggers are there.

Riley Bowles: There should be greater transparency with regard to the types of training, resources, and opportunities that people can seek out if they're interested. It is something that will help all employees; that's not a biased favor for women.

Organizations can think about people as whole human beings who have family lives as well as work lives. Try to think creatively about work arrangements that are more flexible. You're only going to be enhancing all worker commitments. You're likely to be better at retaining talent, too.

There's a nice example of what organizations can do from work by Maureen Scully and Deb Myerson. They discuss a company that interviewed for positions. It was only a half-hour interview; and the one question asked of candidates was, "What's your deal-making experience?" The organization was overwhelmingly male; men were doing the interviews. A half hour is only a brief period to draw out an impression of somebody. The type of experience they were asking for was from an experience base that is overwhelmingly male.

If you don't negotiate for your salary, they walk away happy that they paid you less but wonder why they hired you.
— Kathleen McGinn

Scully and Myerson suggested lengthening the interview to forty-five minutes. They suggested asking, "What can you do for this company?" as opposed to "What's your deal-making experience?" The company found that minorities and women rose to the top in the candidate pool from these very small changes.

So there are subtle things that organizations can do that don't require radical restructuring or explicit affirmative action policies for women. Being thoughtful about the implicit signals that are embedded in the structure of the organization in terms of who is in what types of positions may be a way of getting more out of the talent pool that you have.

Q: What research questions are you working on next?

McGinn: We would really like to see if there are different definitions of leadership. As the chapter says, we're moving into thinking about leadership as a negotiation for claiming resources. In the field, we're trying to find out whether people come in with different definitions of what leaders are. Are they thinking about whether they need different kinds of resources for different kinds of authority? A lot of work on leadership says that you're a leader because you're good at leading. We contend that you're a leader because you're good at claiming authority.

Riley Bowles: We want to look in organizations and learn how people negotiate for resources and opportunities for leadership.

As we emphasize in the chapter, research is really clear at this point that leadership ability does not explain the gap in leadership positions between men and women. If anything, women are almost coming out ahead in studies of leadership ability.

There are barriers along the way. But we think this is a good news story in the sense that there are many things people can do. You don't have to wait for society to change. You're part of changing society. We don't presume that the answer is necessarily that women need to imitate the men. This may be about developing women's voice in a new way.

McGinn: [Author] Steven Lukes has a very radical view of power. At a surface level, power is the ability to get done what you want to get done. Women do not have an issue with that.

At a deeper level, power is the ability to get on the agenda what you want on the agenda. That has more to do with access to networks and resources.

And at a completely fundamental level, power is the ability to change what it is people should even be thinking about or asking for. That is a level at which, if women actually attain power, then these struggles of getting an extra $10,000 in salary are going to be obsolete.

If men and women change the expectations and beliefs about what it is that we're allowed to think about, it is a hopeful story. That is our ultimate hope, that the question of claiming authority and claiming resources becomes, over time, "Do I want to in this situation?" rather than "Can I?"

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.