Salary negotiation is tricky. Ask for too much and you may lose the opportunity to someone else who came in with lower expectations. Fail to ask or lowball, and you could be in for a career-long deficit.
The fact that gender plays favorites in salary negotiations doesn’t help. Women’s discomfort with asking for a better offer combined with evidence that the “social cost” of negotiating (i.e., the hiring manager’s willingness to work with the candidate once they’ve seen them angling for more) is higher for female employees makes for tough going.
Now, new studies reveal that even when women are on the employer’s side of the negotiations, the playing field still isn’t level. According to research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, three experiments revealed that men feel more threatened by a female boss and tend to negotiate even more aggressively.
Lead researcher Ekaterina Netchaeva, an assistant professor of management and technology at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, believes this is caused by the shifting of gender roles. Society’s view of working women may be keeping pace with their participation in the labor force, but it’s also contributing to an ambiguity surrounding the concept of masculinity. “Even men who support gender equality may see these advances as a threat to their masculinity, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not,” Netchaeva said in a statement.
To uncover the hidden bias, the researchers conducted three experiments. One small survey was all about negotiating salary. In it, 52 male college students and 24 female students at a U.S. university were asked to negotiate their salary at a new job in a computer exercise with a male or female hiring manager. Once they had, the participants were asked to guess words that appeared on a computer for a fraction of a second. Those who selected words such as “fear” or “risk” were judged to feel more threatened.
The men who were negotiating with a woman as their manager acted more threatened. As such, they asked for more money ($49,400 average) as opposed to less when asking from a male manager ($42,870 average).
It’s not surprising that women negotiated for a lower salary overall ($41,346 average), as the aforementioned studies have borne out. It didn’t matter whether they were asking a man or a woman, implying that just having more women in leadership positions may not change the gender wage gap.
Two other experiments revealed that men were similarly threatened by female supervisors and therefore more prone to act aggressively. One had 68 male college students figure out how to split a $10,000 bonus with a male or female team member or supervisor. When the other party was a team member, the men split the share evenly, regardless of gender. A female supervisor changed their actions by prompting the students to keep a larger portion for themselves.
A similar experiment with 226 male and 144 female adults drilled deeper to discover how gradations of unconscious bias could affect outcomes. Female supervisors who were described as ambitious and power seeking, rather than proactive and direct, had the guys attempting to keep a bigger share of the $10,000 bonus. Women offered roughly the same to either type of female colleague.
These experiments have implications for real-world workplace dynamics, as they could be disruptive to teamwork and productivity in the long run, the researchers suggest.
This is of particular concern, because other research indicates that men might be a woman’s secret weapon to win the war against wage and gender inequality. A study of Danish companies found that male CEOs were closing the wage gap after they became fathers to daughters–especially at small companies. Another from the University of Colorado last year found that the best people to promote racial and gender diversity in hiring are white men.
“In an ideal world, men and organizations would be concerned by these findings and adjust their behavior accordingly. But if they don’t, where does that leave women?” Netchaeva asks. With societal norms favoring a return to outward displays of masculinity like beards, she believes it’s even harder for men–even those who believe in gender equality–to recognize and then change their behaviors.
Leah Sheppard, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of management at Washington State University, told Mashable that men could even get defensive at the suggestion that they don’t treat female professionals the same way. “There’s a lot of denial about sexism,” she says. “As soon as women bring up their experience, you get a lot of backlash.”
If the guys can’t change, then it’s up to the women in leadership to tweak their own behaviors to appear “more proactive and less power-seeking” to keep the workplace running smoothly, Netchaeva said.