Status, Not Gender, May Influence Salary Negotiations

For the past several decades, the fact that men negotiate salaries better than women has been a persuasive explanation for the gender wage gap in the U.S. Women do not negotiate well, this theory goes, because they run very real social risks for doing so. People tend to perceive women who negotiate on a level equal with men as pushy and cold. Men who negotiate, on the other hand, are perceived as assertive and aware of their value.

But could the business strategy reason have more to do with the issues of status than of gender? A recent Harvard Business Review observes that scenarios in which lower status people try to negotiate leads to reactions very like the one accorded negotiating women.

The authors believe that the negative perception of women who negotiate is driven by a perceived violation of the norms of the community. Women are to put other people first, not themselves. Negotiating for a higher salary means putting yourself first.

Lesser Status Men Are Also Perceived Negatively if They Try to Negotiate

The study looked at men in the Arab Gulf region. Men who work for local companies there are perceived, and perceive themselves, to be of high status. They incur no negative perception if they try to negotiate for higher salaries. But men who work for global companies – the multinationals who operate in the gulf – are perceived as lesser status. As one put it, they are stereotyped as lazy.

When they try to negotiate salaries, the men who work for global companies are perceived just as negatively as women in the U.S.

The study implies that status is the determinant of social risk, rather than gender. A violation of community norms – someone of inferior status asking for more – is the key in both.

Interestingly enough, women in the Gulf who work for either local or global firms are also negatively stereotyped, with people saying they would not want to work with a woman who negotiated for a higher salary. The authors note that women who negotiate for more are seen as both immodest and too wedded to material goods.

Status rather than gender might determine ability to negotiate.

The Remedy?

As a result, the authors say, the remedies so often promulgated in the U.S. may not entirely work to reduce the gender wage gap.

Here, more coaching and mentoring in the art of assertion is considered a key to teaching women how (and why) to negotiate higher salaries.

But, if the differential is status, it is more about who has the right to ask for more in a given social structure. The backlash may be less susceptible to change because the status differentials are not addressed as gender inequity as in the U.S.

The authors point out that only some groups negotiate to begin with. Negotiation is often done where workers are highly-educated and in prominent positions. Down the social and economic scale, there’s far less room for negotiation, so neither gender tends to do it.

While the failure to negotiate is often cited as a reason for the persistent wage gender gap in the U.S. and is seen as stemming from negative social consequences, it’s possible that the failure is driven more by relative status than by gender.