Too often, when we talk about closing the gender pay gap, the focus is on one thing: women need to ask for higher pay. “Just ask!” experts seem to shout at us through a metaphorical megaphone. The reality is far more complex, and understanding what happens when women negotiate, in addition to the many ways they negotiate, can help you advance more quickly, do more interesting work, and achieve better work-life balance.
Research shows that when women ask for money, they’re often met with more resistance because it chafes with our notion of how they should be (which is to say, collective rather than competitive). While this fact is deeply frustrating, and certainly not a reason to avoid asking for higher pay anyway (increasing your starting salary could have a major impact on your earnings over time), it’s important to understand that it’s not the only tool to use in crafting your career.
A 2019 research paper led by a Harvard professor argues that employees negotiate all the time, whether they realize it or not, and straightforward “asking” is only one of the ways they do this. The other two strategies are “bending” and “shaping”, and women often successfully employ these to their advantage.
Bending is when you see that none of the options in front of you are great, so you make the case for getting an exception to the rule (often by compromising).
This kind of negotiating often comes up in situations in which someone needs to adapt their work around their family/caregiving duties. For example, let’s say everyone in your department is expected to work 9-5pm, but three times a week you’d really like to leave at 3pm to pick up your kid from school. There’s an option to work part-time, but you really don’t want to take a salary cut. So you might ask if you can take an hour off to do that and, in exchange, start work at 8am. Or you might not even offer to come in early but simply ask for a more flexible schedule and promise that you’ll still meet your deadlines. What defines “bending” is that you’re not choosing from options that already exist — you’re creating a new option for yourself.
The researchers observed that women use this strategy more often than the other kinds of negotiation, and that they recalled more positive bending experiences than men. One reason for this might be that they tend to take on more family responsibilities in the first place and therefore feel compelled to ask for more concessions.
Another theory is that women face more barriers to advancing on traditional paths. For example, some women in the study successfully found ways to take on higher-level work (thus advancing their careers), despite lacking the formal qualifications to do so. One woman didn’t have a particular technical certification, but felt very confident she could do the work. By making that case for herself, she was bending the rule that said she needed to check certain boxes.
Shaping is when you argue for an institutional change to an organization that happens to benefit you as well. It’s different from bending in that you’re not just asking for an exception to the status quo, you’re asking to change the status quo for everyone.
In one case, an executive had a great idea for a new product line at her company. After convincing her boss to let her run a pilot program that went beautifully, she developed a business plan to implement it on a bigger scale. The catch? Part of the plan was that she be made an officer. Lucky for her, the higher-ups accepted the plan and agreed to elevate her role in the process. What makes this scenario a form of “shaping” negotiation is that her request required the company to actually change its strategy. She wasn’t just asking for a promotion within the existing structure – she was shaping the direction of the company and making a case that it’d benefit everyone.
The researchers observed that both male and female leaders use this strategy, conceding that it’s much more labor-intensive and takes a lot longer to pay off. You have to gather support from multiple people, build your case over time, and often wait until the timing is good for the organization as a whole. Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that you’ll achieve your aims. Still, it can be very effective when it goes well because it’s a form of “leadership claiming”. Essentially, you’re saying, “Rather than wait around to be offered a promotion, I’m inventing the promotion myself.” The study also theorizes that women are often successful at this kind of negotiation because it’s viewed as “collective”. You have everyone’s interests in mind, not just your own.
Is it unfair that we judge women for being competitive while expecting men to be? Absolutely. The onus should not be only on women to master these various kinds of negotiation, and doing so takes energy and time that they might otherwise be devoting to doing their actual jobs.
Ultimately, employers need to recognize their own biases and strive to build organizations that take human/family needs into account and create fair opportunities for advancement. Still, having a more complete, nuanced understanding of the many kinds of negotiation can help you be aware of the different kinds of tools you can use to shape your career.
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