Opinion

The Podium

Why leaning in can backfire

Employers still retain certain gender biases in job negotiations

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Employers still retain certain gender biases in job negotiations

It’s every job seeker’s nightmare — having an offer rescinded.

In a story circulating widely in the media, “W,” a newly minted Ph.D. received a faculty job offer from the philosophy department at Nazareth College in Pennsylvania and soon after, the school withdrew that offer. What crime did W, a woman, apparently commit to cause such a dramatic censure? She negotiated.

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We only have emails that W has released to go on — she expressed enthusiasm and then offered five improvements to the initial offer, which, she wrote, would “make [her] decision easier.” The search committee replied by suggesting, based on these requests, that the position may no longer be “suitable” for her and rescinded the offer.

This rather harsh response, not surprisingly, has fueled plenty of speculation — had she misjudged the college’s resources? Was there another candidate the hiring committee liked just as well? And many bloggers have taken their turns criticizing W for overreaching, being too aggressive, using email for what was a delicate interaction better handled by telephone or in person, or even for negotiating in the first place. Our research, however, suggests that both the college’s and the blogosphere’s reactions to W would likely have been different if she were a man.

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Given all the recent calls for women in the workplace to be assertive, to step up, to lean in — it’d seem W had done exactly what she was supposed to. Yet what our collective research on negotiations, studying thousands of participants, shows is that when a male and a female face the same opportunity and use identical negotiation techniques, a woman negotiating on her own behalf is judged more harshly than a man doing the same. The female negotiator tends to be deemed more aggressive and less likeable than her male counterpart, regardless of the fact that both asked for the same amount of compensation, using the exact same script. And, as appears to be the case for W, some studies have found that evaluators are less inclined to agree to female than male requests.

Why does this happen? Because people judge identical behavior by men and women differently, particularly when the behavior violates how we think men and women should behave. A person who strongly articulates their qualifications for a job might be judged as “assertive” if he is a man, but “overbearing” if she is a woman. Or a person who leads in an authoritative way may be seen as a strong leader if he is a man, yet “bossy” if she is a woman. Clearly, society still has entrenched norms about how men and women ought to behave. We still imagine men should be the strong, assertive, breadwinners and women the warm and selfless team players. When people violate stereotypic gender expectations, many think less of them.

The backlash W endured from Nazareth’s search committee, which chose not to even engage in negotiation, likely stems more from her violation of gender norms than her negotiating approach. Faculty search committees routinely make choices about who will receive a job offer after reviewing candidates’ research and teaching evaluations, multiple letters of reference, and extensive face-to-face interactions, including campus visits with numerous faculty. Search committees have ample opportunities to assess a candidate’s fit in their culture. In this case, Nazareth chose W. Yet, according to the information made public, all of this evidence was essentially nullified by that one email W sent to negotiate for an adjusted offer.

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The likeliest conclusion, then, is that W’s counter-offer triggered a visceral — and probably subconscious — discomfort with a woman asking for more for herself.

Members of the search committee, and, indeed, some readers, may be appalled at the idea this case has anything to do with gender. Yet it is well understood that people often aren’t conscious of the normals that govern their judgments. In fact, people can subconsciously use these norms as guideposts even when they consciously judge them to be repugnant.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t make the Nazareth search committee’s behavior benign. For one, the philosophy department invested a tremendous amount of time and resources, only to lose a job candidate it had liked — at least until she negotiated. And W lost a good position in a job market where vacancies are scarce.

More importantly, however, other women hearing about this incident may be dissuaded from negotiating in the future, an outcome that will only fuel the income gap between men and women.

Instead, this should be an opportunity for employers to reflect on how gender can color both hiring decisions and compensation negotiations. This awareness will ultimately help avoid losing the most talented candidates — regardless of their gender.

Linda Babcock is professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. Catherine H. Tinsley is professor of management at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. Hannah Bowles is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University. Andrea K. Schneider is professor of law at Marquette University. Laura Kray is professor of leadership at University of California at Berkeley.
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