This week’s WAPPP seminar was the last of the year! It’s been an honor being your blogger this semester, and I’m looking forward to more cutting-edge gender research in these seminars next year. This week, WAPPP’s own Bobbi Thomason, Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Wharton, presented her work in collaboration with Hannah Riley Bowles and Julia Bear.
Current Literature Doesn’t Reflect Many Women’s Negotiation Experiences
We’ve spoken a lot this year about women’s career negotiations, focusing in particular on the effects of ambiguity and stereotypes on negotiation and the social cost of negotiating flexible work arrangements. However, much of the research on gender and negotiations doesn’t reflect the diversity of contexts in which women negotiate. Professor Thomason’s research group analyzed 43 studies on gender and career negotiation, and realized that the overwhelming number (70%) were lab studies, all of them talked about compensation while only some discussed job benefits or promotion, and 95% were negotiations with just one counterpart.
Because the literature is overwhelmingly on institutional topics and standard terms, like one’s starting salary, it’s unclear whether it generalizes to broader career topics that matter for women’s leadership positions and lifetime earnings. One other concern is that negotiating about money may be a gendered trigger. The “ideal worker” for most organizations is a male breadwinner with no outside commitments or distractions, who is understood to have a full-time caregiver at home. When women negotiate for a higher salary or bonus, it may go against stereotypes of how a female worker “should” act and elicit negative reactions.
Using Fieldwork to Build Lab-Testable Theories
Ideally, Professor Thomason explained, research is a combination of grounded theory building in the field – conducting interviews and observing people in the real world – which helps researchers construct hypotheses to test in the lab. Because the current understanding of gender and negotiations is so dominated by lab work on compensation, there is a significant opportunity to do qualitative fieldwork to better understand women’s lived experiences with negotiation.
In that vein, Professor Thomason presented three interrelated studies on the lived experiences of gender in career negotiations: a survey of 46 women, interviews with 49 male and female senior government officials, and a survey of workers in a large professional services firm.
Study 1: Understanding the Types of Negotiation
Professor Thomason’s research group surveyed women in corporate and entrepreneurial roles about their negotiation experiences and found three main types of negotiations. Institutional negotiations are standard requests, like asking for a raise. Institution bending negotiations are about creating a nonstandard work arrangement for an individual employee, like negotiating a flexible schedule. Institution shaping negotiations change the organization itself, often by creating a new role, program, or practice.
Study 2: Who Participates in Each Type of Negotiation, and What Do They Discuss?
In the second study, the research group examined a more institutionally constrained context, the US federal government. This study allowed the researchers to survey men and women and to test whether certain types of negotiations are easier in startups or other work settings that value flexibility and disruption. Each of the 49 interviewees shared stories of negotiating for their own and for others’ career advancement.
The researchers found that men in this sample did far more institutional negotiations and institution shaping negotiations. By contrast, women did significantly more institution bending negotiations for themselves than men did. (So much for the notion that women don't negotiate!) When negotiating for others, that gap disappears: men and women do about the same amount of institution bending and shaping negotiations for others, and men do more institutional negotiations for others than women.
Examining the topic of negotiations showed that compensation was a very small proportion of the issues discussed, in contrast to its disproportionate representation in most studies. Role negotiations were the most common topic – all of the institution shaping negotiations were about role, but role considerations were discussed in each of the three types. Notably, only women participated in institution bending negotiations for geographic and temporal flexibility.
Study 3: Understanding Gender and Leadership in Negotiation
The researchers interviewed 156 partners and senior partners in a professional services firm for the third study. Participants were asked about the frequency of certain types of career negotiation over their career at the firm and were prompted to recall and report on a recent career negotiation. At the end of the survey, participants were asked a series of questions to measure their “perceived freedom to negotiate.” The overall mean for the sample was a 4.7 on a 7 point scale – an “agree somewhat” that they feel free to negotiate career-related issues. There was no difference in perceived freedom to negotiate based on gender or leadership role, which is quite noteworthy!
Professor Thomason’s research group asked whether certain negotiation types are correlated with gender or leadership roles. Women (both partners and senior partners) report significantly more institution bending negotiations than men. However, there are no significant gender differences in institutional or institution shaping negotiations. Senior partners (those in leadership roles) report significantly more institution shaping negotiations, but leadership role is not significantly correlated with institutional or institution bending negotiations. In terms of topic, men report a much higher frequency of job-offer negotiations, like those regarding compensation, whereas women report a much higher frequency of workload and work-life flexibility negotiations.
In their interviews, there was no gender difference in ability to recall a recent negotiation, which refutes the assumption that “women don’t negotiate.” There was also no difference between partners and senior partners in recalling a recent negotiation, which indicates that everyone negotiates. The median length of reported negotiations was an extraordinary 90 days, which may present some obstacles to replicating real-life negotiations in a lab setting. Reported negotiations tend to be with more senior and “somewhat close” colleagues, and unlike most lab studies, most negotiations involve multiple counterparts. On average, 90% of men’s negotiation counterparts were also men, while only 13% of women’s negotiation counterparts were also women. There was no gender difference in satisfaction with the outcome, and 88% of the reported negotiations were resolved.
Opportunities for Future Research
This research provides important information about who negotiates, what negotiation type they employ, and the topic of negotiation that can be used to inform new theories and new lab experiments. However, Professor Thomason pointed out, these self-reports could be influenced by gender-appropriate narratives, which may obscure some of the reality of negotiations. It’s also unclear whether leaders conduct more institutional shaping negotiations because they are already in leadership roles or whether they use these negotiations to attain leadership roles. Future research is needed to test these propositions.
One of the key contributions of this work is examining women who have made it and women who have made it big. If the negotiation literature only focuses on barriers to women’s negotiation or the women who have failed to advance, it may inadvertently perpetuate the stereotype that women don’t negotiate or don’t negotiate well. Further research will help us develop a broader conceptualization of gender and career negotiations beyond “women don’t ask” to better understand how women wield negotiation to advance in their careers.