In a fascinating book published four years ago, Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever found that whether they want higher salaries or more help at home, women often found it hard to ask. But why don't they ask? Harvard's Hannah Riley Bowles and Carnegie Mellon's Linda Babcock and Lei Lai have examined this question in a series of experiments. Their paper, Social Incentives for Gender Differences in the Propensity to Initiate Negotiations: Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask (PDF), finds that women may face social, such as being perceived as 'demanding', or may be penalised for initiating negotiations:
Four experiments show that gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations may be explained by differential treatment of men and women when they attempt to negotiate. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants evaluated written accounts of candidates who did or did not initiate negotiations for higher compensation. Evaluators penalized female candidates more than male candidates for initiating negotiations.
In Experiment 3, participants evaluated videotapes of candidates who accepted compensation offers or initiated negotiations. Male evaluators penalized female candidates more than male candidates for initiating negotiations; female evaluators penalized all candidates for initiating negotiations.
Perceptions of niceness and demandingness explained resistance to female negotiators. In Experiment 4, participants adopted the candidate’s perspective and assessed whether to initiate negotiations in same scenario used in Experiment 3. With male evaluators, women were less inclined than men to negotiate, and nervousness explained this effect. There was no gender difference when evaluator was female.
As the authors conclude, "this research suggests that gender differences in the initiation of negotiations cannot be resolved simply by encouraging women to speak up more." Moreover, research which focuses primarily on the economic outcomes of negotiation may overlook the fact that sometimes "the social costs of engaging in certain negotiating behaviors may not outweigh the economic benefits."
It's certainly food for thought - but with one very important caveat. Like most other experimental studies, the authors have based their conclusions on an unrepresentative sample - college students.
The participants were 119 North American university students (66 men, 53 women) recruited from various points on a university campus (e.g., flyers, dining halls) to participate in a Hiring Decision Study.
I very much doubt that the behaviour and attitudes of a bunch of students whose median age was 20 would accurately replicate those of experienced supervisors or HR managers facing a recruitment, promotion or renumeration decision. I wish social scientists would make greater efforts to find test subjects who are representative of the hypothesis they are testing, rather than go for the lazy (and cheap) approach of walking down the corridor and offering $5 to whoever they can get.