It is an unfortunate concrete fact that women earn less than their male counterparts. Most labor economists estimate the gender pay gap is between 10-20%. The most common number cited is that women make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Other studies have shown that the gender pay gap could be as severe as 49 cents on the dollar when normalizing for other factors.
Previous research in the subject tended to emphasize three aspects of negotiations: that women tend to ask less often, tend to ask for less, and tended to receive less even when they asked. Recent research shows that the final factor may actually be closest to the truth.
Previous research that powered books like “Women Don’t Ask” demonstrated that women are less likely to negotiate their salaries. This is shown in Babcock’s Carnegie Mellon study which showed 57% of male MBAs negotiating their salaries in comparison with only 7% of female MBAs. Other studies duplicate this research.
However, today’s research suggests that times have changed. A 2018 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that women ask just as often as men but just don’t receive salary increases. The study is run on a more recent and more detailed dataset and perhaps does more justice for women’s ability to negotiate their own salaries.
The study, in a huge shock to the authors, found that the difference is not in how often women asked but in how often they received. Using this dataset, they found that women who asked for a raise obtained it only 15% of the time whereas men who asked obtained it 20% of the time. While this may not seem like a big difference, the 5% really adds up when you consider the number of women and how money compounds over the years.
In addition, previous research found that women acted less assertively in negotiations in order to preserve the relationship with the employer. There is a body of research that asserts that women, fearing the potential backlash and social consequences, may opt-out.
Surprisingly, today’s research also contradicts this. They found that men and women are equally likely to be concerned about damaging relationships in the workplace by negotiating. The authors demonstrated this by showing that both 14% of men and women chose not to ask for a raise in favor of relationship preservation.
As the authors put “The bottom line is that the patterns we have found are consistent with the idea that women’s requests for advancement are treated differently from men’s requests. Asking does not mean getting — at least if you are a female.” The research shows that perhaps women have always asked more often than they have gotten credit for.
We worked with Hannah Bowles of Harvard’s Kennedy School to distill best practices for women when it comes to salary negotiations.