Stop Saying Women Are Bad at Negotiating Salaries

"It's not a gender thing, it's a simple matter of whether people have negotiation training or not"

Closing Arguments Made In The Discrimination Case Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC
Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg News

In April, Reddit Chief Executive Officer Ellen Pao made the highly talked-about move of banning salary negotiations. 

"Men negotiate harder than women do, and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate," Pao told the Wall Street Journal. Following that logic, all companies should scrap the negotiation process to tackle disparities in men and women's pay. 

Not everyone agrees. "I'm skeptical this is going to be the panacea for closing the gender wage gap," says Catherine Tinsley, a management professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Tinsley has studied the gender pay gap, led seminars for the World Bank and Rolls-Royce, and conducted research on women and confidence. She has long advocated for women in business, but she doesn't think cutting out negotiations will fix the wage gap. Bloomberg talked to Tinsley about why she's skeptical, and what can be done to ensure that women are paid fairly. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Pao says pay shouldn't be based on the outcome of a salary negotiation because women don't tend to be as aggressive as men when they're asking for money. What do you make of that?

There's a recent meta-analysis that just came out that looks at gender differences in negotiations ... and the greatest disparities are where there's ambiguity about whether something is negotiable or not. Just about everyone knows that salary is negotiable, so there's going to be less of a gender difference there. What people might not think about is that other things, like bonuses, like performance appraisals and review dates might be negotiable. So if those are what's determining your total compensation now, in the end we could see even more of a skewed distribution if you cut out salary negotiations. 

But are men better at negotiating than women? 

This assumption that negotiating cleaves along gender lines is something I take issue with. When I asked some students whether people liked this new policy of abandoning negotiations, some people said yes, and some people said no, but it wasn't all of the women who said yes and all of the men who said no. There's a little bit of a message—that women aren't good at negotiating, so we have to help them along—that I think reinforces the stereotype of women not being as fit in the workplace as men are. 

Then what's causing the gender wage gap to still exist?

We've been trying to close it for 20 years, at least, 50 years maybe ... and what's behind it—I think—is, shockingly, some still very traditional notions of gender roles. We still want men to be the primary breadwinner, even if women also want to be compensated well. And so, because we have these traditional gender schemes, if you will, these mental models; I think that's why we find that when women behave in a certain way, they're sometimes penalized for doing that. That's where you get reinforcement that women are more reluctant, and more reticent to ask. 

What's the key to getting the best deal out of a negotiation, man or woman?

I've been teaching negotiations for 20 years, and one of the things I tell [students] is that you have to be authentic. If you're not, it comes off as being disingenuous—and people get skeptical about it—so I think if women can't embrace behaving a certain way, they shouldn't do it ... but it's the same as men. It's not a gender thing, it's a simple matter of whether people have negotiation training or not.

You have to brainstorm all the possible things you can get from the company. It's much more than just salary negotiations. ... I mean seriously, now concierge services are being offered by a lot of companies. Also, you have to practice. As goofy as it sounds, you have to get up and practice with someone because negotiation is a behavior—and in order to get better at a behavior, you have to engage in it. If I want to get better at tennis, I can't just watch Roger Federer. You have to put yourself into the mix and just do it.

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