Workplace negotiation for women

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Workplace negotiation for women

As of February 2018, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, identified Australia’s wage gap as leaving women with an average of 15.3% less in earnings than men. The reasons for this ongoing gap are myriad and complicated, and include the complex issues of lower wages in women-dominant industries and unpaid maternity and carer’s leave. However, the gap is also fed in part by entrenched gender norms and residual discrimination and bias in hiring and pay decisions.

One of the ways that these gender norms manifest is the difference in how men and women negotiate in the workplace; and one of the ways discrimination and bias manifest is in the different responses to male and female negotiation tactics.

Linda Babcock, Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, studied the negotiation tactics and styles of men and women, and found that men were asking and negotiating for promotions and pay raises far more than women were. These results can in part be understood through an analysis of  how Western culture traditionally values assertiveness and displays of strength in men, while preferring nurturing and appeasing behaviour in women.

While the traditional dynamic of the man as provider and woman as homemaker has been significantly disrupted over the past century, these norms nonetheless continue to influence many workplaces’ implicit biases, often without individual workers realising.

Compounding this issue, is the evidence to suggest that when women do negotiate they are often unrewarded for it. Harvard Business Review notes,

“In repeated studies, the social cost of negotiating for higher pay has been found to be greater for women than it is for men. Men can certainly overplay their hand and alienate negotiating counterparts. However, in most published studies, the social cost of negotiating for pay is not significant for men, while it is significant for women.”

These studies indicate that negotiating in the workplace as a woman can be a difficult and unrewarding experience. The causes exist on a systemic level and the onus of combating them cannot fall on individual women. However, in the meantime, there are tactics and methods to navigate the process, that increase the likelihood of getting what you want while not damaging your reputation.

Harvard Business Review describes Sheryl Sandberg’s “relational account” – her process for “thinking personally and acting communally” while negotiating. Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, recommends negotiating by asking for what you want while signalling that you also appreciate your negotiating counterpart’s perspective.


  1. Demonstrate to your negotiating counterpart why (from their perspective) it is legitimate to be negotiating with them in the first place.
    Explain why it is appropriate and justified for you to be negotiating. For example, perhaps your role within the organisation requires strong negotiating skills.HBR states that “when the explanation for why the woman was negotiating seemed legitimate, people were more inclined to grant her compensation request (as compared to when she was simply negotiating for a higher salary without that explanation).”
  2. Signal that you care about organisational relationships.This will encourage your negotiating counterpart to want to work with you. “After pointing out that they should want her to be a good negotiator, Sandberg recounts saying, ‘This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.’ In other words, ‘I am clear that we’re on the same team here.’”


Other tips to consider:

  • Negotiate as if you are representing somebody other than yourself: The dispute resolution firm, MWI, notes that “Women are known to be better at “representative negotiating,” or negotiating on behalf of others.” Use the assertiveness and determination that you would use when advocating for another for yourself.
  • In conversations around pay, negotiate for benefits other than just money: consider other types of compensation such as more flexibility, different hours, a company phone or car etc that would make a difference to your life but may be easier for the other party to part with.
  • Do not assume that everybody in your workplace is aware of your efforts and input: The American Bar Association notes that “Women tend to take on more tasks which, while important for the institution to function, are not necessarily tracked by management (i.e., are not promotable tasks), like spearheading a committee or overseeing implementation of a new filing system. When tracking success, think outside the box and do not limit yourself to mere hours billed or business generated.” Make your negotiating counterpart aware of the work you do and the achievements you’ve had.
  • Consider joining an employee resource group or a union who can have your back should your efforts to negotiate be treated unfairly.

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