Negotiating Salary: A Catch-22 Situation for Women


According to recent study, a woman who assertively negotiates her pay may encounter more pushback as she advances through the levels of the organization. This phenomenon may be a contributing factor to the large gender disparity in the C-suite.

Julian Zlatev, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues analyzed data from over 2,500 negotiators and discovered evidence that women who felt powerful at the negotiating table were more likely to achieve inferior terms or no settlement at all. Regardless of the gender of their bargaining partners, the outcomes stayed true.

Gender equality is still severely hampered eight years after Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In inspired women to climb the corporate ladder, especially in the areas of compensation and promotions. Based on their study’s findings, Zlatev and his colleagues hypothesize that negotiation dynamics not only exacerbate the lack of women in leadership positions but also put all women in the workforce in a losing position because neither being assertive nor fitting into stereotypes helps a woman succeed in the workplace. According to Zlatev, businesses will need to rethink the negotiating process in order to overcome these problems.


“At the organizational level, something needs to be done to prevent assertiveness from causing this backlash in the first place,” he states. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to advise women, for instance, not to lean in.”

Zlatev and his colleagues, Jennifer Dannals from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and Nir Halevy and Margaret Neale from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, examined data from 2,552 MBA candidates and executives from five continents who participated in both online and in-person negotiation exercises. The goal of the study was to determine why, as previous studies have repeatedly shown, women routinely do worse than males in comparable negotiating situations.

Strong alternatives influence behavior

Of the individuals involved, 19% were senior executives and 35% were women. Group members bargained in pairs: 43% of the pairings consisted of a woman and a man, 43% of the couples were just males, and 14% of the pairs had only women. Before the negotiation started, the research team gave certain participants—men and women alike—a powerful alternative offer at random so they could see how the backup option impacted the result, according to Zlatev.

The research indicates that whether a woman is negotiating with a male or another woman, the probability of the session ending in a deadlock virtually triples when she has a strong external choice, such a job offer from another organization. According to Zlatev, making a solid backup offer should allow one to bargain more assertively and gain greater leverage in the trade. However, the research demonstrates that a more assertive woman causes her negotiating partner to experience a stronger “backlash,” perhaps as a result of deeply rooted prejudices and unspoken ideas about how women “should” behave.

According to Zlatev, “you risk getting this backlash if you are assertive enough, and you don’t get your desired outcome if you’re not assertive enough.”

According to the experts, when a woman rises in the business world, she will probably encounter more resistance.

The researchers write in The Dynamics of Gender and Alternatives in Negotiation, an article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, that “this research lends further credence to the notion that it may be difficult for women to reach higher rank positions in organizations even though women may actually often practice advantageous leadership styles once they achieve these positions of higher rank.”

When asked if the classroom environment of the study’s included negotiations may have had an impact on participants’ behavior, Zlatev and his colleagues say they think it might have mitigated the effects their research showed because people typically become more assertive or uncompromising when real money is at stake. Zlatev emphasizes that although gender constituted a significant component of the research sample, there are several other characteristics that also influence negotiating results.

imposing restrictions on talks

In an attempt to combat gender prejudice and wage disparities, some organizations, like Reddit, have removed compensation discussions from the recruiting process; nevertheless, this removes possibilities for both sides to optimize value.


Zlatev asserts, “Negotiation is not a zero-sum game.” To increase the size of the pie and really extract as much value as possible for both sides from the negotiation, it is important to attempt to ascertain what you and your counterpart value in the negotiation and how to trade off on those various problems.

Zlatev advises employers to think about making certain components of a pay package non-negotiable in order to preserve those trade-offs, particularly in light of the fact that research identifies the areas with the greatest disparity, like income. Research from the past seems to corroborate this strategy, since it shows that situational uncertainty in negotiations increases the gender gap and that reducing it contributes to its closure.

According to Zlatev, “I think that would be one way to try to close the gender gap as much as possible while still allowing many of the benefits of negotiation to come through.” This would include permitting negotiation but placing restrictions on it.

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