Why Do Women Accept Lower Salary Offers Than Men?



  • Men are rewarded for negotiating aggressively, while women are often punished for taking the assertive approach — and they hedge their behavior accordingly
  • In simulated negotiations, women accepted salary offers worth an average of $7,000 less than those accepted by men
  • But when women negotiate on someone else’s behalf, assertiveness is not only accepted, it’s expected

I got my first job offer when I was 22 years old, just after I’d graduated from college. I’ve had four more jobs (and earned an MBA) since then, and while I have gotten better at negotiating a starting salary, it’s still not something I’m comfortable doing. What’s more, I’m pretty sure that my reluctance to be more assertive means I’ve left some money on the table in the past. I have marketable and valuable skills, relevant work experience, and an advanced degree. I’m confident in an interview but not at the negotiating table, and I don’t know why.

Fortunately for me, Emily Amanatullah’s office is a two-minute walk away from mine, so I decided to go find out.

Amanatullah is an assistant professor of management at McCombs, and perhaps you heard her recent interview on NPR’s Morning Edition about women and negotiation.

When we met, she was quick to clear up one prevailing misconception: Men are not better negotiators.

“My research shows that women are good negotiators across the board, but they are negotiating more than just the deal on the table,” she says. “We are aware that backlash is likely if we engage in aggressive behaviors, and we purposefully hedge our behavior accordingly.”

Women Hedge to Avoid Backlash

In simulated salary negotiations, Amanatullah found that women asked for an average of $7,000 less than men — but not because they are poor negotiators. She explains that women know intuitively there could be negative repercussions if we’re perceived as too aggressive. Our goal is not only to get the best salary and benefits package we can, but also to ensure that we walk into a favorable working environment once we start our new job.

“We’re very attuned to the social consequences of our behavior,” she says. And because of that, women tend to consciously hedge their competitive behavior if they think backlash is likely.

But is it really? Are we right to be concerned? Yes, says Amanatullah. “I’ve done other studies that confirm the backlash women are anticipating is very real. If an assertive woman negotiates as aggressively as a man, she may achieve the same financial outcome, but she is socially penalized for that behavior.” She could be seen as less attractive and less worthy of hire, or she could find that fewer resources and projects are funneled her way later.

Men, however, don’t have to worry about backlash because negotiation is considered an inherently masculine activity, says Amanatullah. They’re expected to be assertive and aggressive. Women, conversely, are expected to be communal, kind, and nurturing — traits that may be downplayed during self-promotional activities, such as negotiating a higher starting salary or a raise.

Advocating for Others Can Be Beneficial

But when women negotiate on someone else’s behalf, assertiveness is not only accepted, it’s expected.

Amanatullah explains: “Think about a mother going to a school principal and adamantly advocating for her child. There are no negative social repercussions for that woman. She’s expected to be an assertive advocate for her child. So this is a very familiar role that women play in advocating for others aggressively. Women are not only more comfortable playing this role of the ‘other-advocate,’ but society as a whole is more comfortable with women enacting this role.”

When women advocate for someone else, there are no negative social consequences. It’s here that men and women fare the same — both can be assertive on another person’s behalf, and neither gender is penalized.
The challenge, you might guess, is how to convey a nurturing, other-centered disposition during your annual review when your own personal performance counts most.

Amanatullah is continuing her research into this area to better understand how women can reframe a self-interested negotiation — because, let’s face it, sometimes you have to toot your own horn — in an “other-interested” way that allows them to be more assertive at the table while also avoiding backlash effects.

The fact is, for women in business, we’re still encountering many of the same feminine expectations of past generations. Amanatullah’s advice is to use inclusive language to reinforce that your value isn’t just as a singular employee but as an integral part of a team. Also, consider others — your spouse, children, or pets for that matter — who would also benefit from your increased bottom line to use as motivation to claim more resources for yourself. Finding ways to highlight your group’s successes fearlessly may be the surest way to put extra money in your bank account each month.

After all, reminds Amanatullah, “It’s not about what you ask for; it’s how you ask for it.”

Listen to Emily Amanatullah’s full interview with NPR or read the transcript here.


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Faculty in this Article

Emily Amanatullah

Assistant Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Emily Amanatullah earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Columbia University in 2007 and a B.S. in psychology and computer science from...

About The Author

Adrienne Dawson

Writer, McCombs School of Business

Adrienne is the newest writer for Texas Enterprise and focuses her efforts on promoting the vast and impressive research our faculty members...

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