Explicit gender discrimination has largely been ferreted out of the American workplace, but several inequalities have persisted for generations. Women are still paid less than equally qualified men who hold the same positions. They are promoted less often, are less likely to reach top management positions, and have lower job satisfaction.
Emily Amanatullah believes these inequalities may stem from deeply ingrained social norms that influence the ways in which men and women interact. Amanatullah, assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business, researches these social dynamics in an effort to establish a more level playing field in professional settings.
“It’s those kinds of invisible barriers that we’re trying to bring to light,” she said at the Texas Enterprise Speaker Series event on March 28. “If we see those invisible barriers, we can break them down.”
Amanatullah’s work explores the role of gender dynamics in the negotiation process. Specifically, she focuses on distributive negotiations, the type often used in job interviews as well as salary and bonus discussions. “For you to get more, someone has to give you more, and they take less,” she explained.
Her research suggests that in these scenarios, women are less competitive and negotiate monetarily worse outcomes relative to men. This is not because they are less motivated or less skilled at negotiating, but rather because of underlying social biases, Amanatullah said.
Society stereotypes women as caring, helpful and nurturing — a stark contrast to the masculine stereotype of independence and self-reliance. When women step out of that socially prescribed box in aggressive pursuit of a goal, they contradict expectations and are often received negatively, Amanatullah said. This is called the backlash effect.
“Women who go out of their way to demonstrate competencies in this masculine domain end up incurring social sanctions for doing so,” she said.
As a result, many women enter salary negotiations facing a tough choice. They can be assertive, which makes them seem driven but socially abrasive, or they can take a softer approach, thus confirming the gender stereotype with the silver lining of coming off as more likeable.
“It sets up for women this double bind between either being likeable but incompetent or competent but unlikeable,” Amanatullah said.
What’s more, both male and female hiring managers are equally likely to backlash against women they perceive as counter-stereotypical — and some studies have found that female interviewers are actually harsher toward other women, she said.
Another component of Amanatullah’s research examines what happens when women negotiate on behalf of someone else, rather than themselves.
“When you’re negotiating for someone other than yourself, being assertive and aggressive actually confirms the expectations that you’re other-directed, that you’re nurturing, and that you’re communal,” she said.
The result in these cases is likely to be a more successful negotiation. This is partly due to a shift in expectations. When the conversation is reframed in an advocacy context, being outspoken doesn’t trigger the same negative response. And, women tend to feel more comfortable negotiating for others than for themselves; they have less fear of a backlash, and they are more confident in suggesting higher counteroffers, Amanatullah said.
After studying the two extremes of negotiating for oneself and for others, Amanatullah took a closer look at the middle ground: What happens when a woman negotiates for a group to which she belongs? Would she be rewarded for advocating for a larger cause, or would she be punished for being an assertive self-promoter? This middle ground is called “us advocacy.”
In one of Amanatullah’s studies, women who negotiated bonuses for their entire project team were rated as more socially accepted than those who argued on their own behalf. The likelihood of receiving a higher bonus was the same across both groups, but the “us advocacy” negotiators were far less likely than the self-advocators to have their bonuses decreased after the negotiation.
Amanatullah hopes her work can offer practical advice to women as they prepare for negotiations. She recommends that an interviewee reframe a one-on-one negotiation as a conversation about the greater good while pointing out ways others can benefit from her individual success. For instance, she could mention that a better salary would better equip her to lead her team, or support her family, or contribute more to the success of the corporation as a whole.
Amanatullah also said her research illustrates a need for changes at an organizational level.
“A lot of the way work is done, especially at U.S. firms, creates this environment in which self-promotion is necessary to succeed,” she said. “But there are institutional structures that could be implemented to help alleviate the necessity of [self-promoting] in order to be successful.”
Basing performance reviews on more objective criteria could be one way to reduce the emphasis on self-advocacy, she said. Including peer evaluations in the process of determining raises and promotions could be another.
While her findings may seem to paint a dispiriting picture of women’s experience in the workplace, Amanatullah said she hopes her work will be seen as a means to positive change.
“Ultimately, my research is very empowering to women and helps us to not feel disadvantaged or that we are part of the problem,” she said. “Rather, women are no less able or motivated or capable of negotiating effectively relative to men. They simply have more to negotiate.”