How to Break Out of the Double Bind of Negotiating as a Woman

Damned If you DoWhen it comes to salaries, men are eight to nine times more likely to negotiate than women. In a session at the 2017 Booth Women Connect Conference titled, “Damned if You Do or Doomed if You Don’t: Getting Out of the Double Bind Negotiating as a Woman,” Chicago Booth adjunct associate professor of behavioral science Elena Zinchenko shared a stunning illustration of the cascading effect this imbalance can have on women in business.

Research shows that job-seekers who accept an initial salary offer rather than negotiate miss out on an average of $5,600, in annual pay, Zinchenko said. For a 30-year-old woman, a $5,600 gap from one missed opportunity balloons to $600,000 in lost income by the time she turns 65 (assuming a standard 3 percent salary increase each year and missed investment potential). A single failure to negotiate thus can have a jaw-dropping impact on a woman’s lifetime earning potential.

Yet even when female MBA students know these statistics, only 12 percent of them negotiate their first job offer. Why? Zinchenko attributed their reluctance to an implicit bias against women: in a culture that often associates femininity with traits such as “communal-oriented, nurturing, and nice,” women who stand up for their own self-interest can make people uncomfortable. The result? Women who drive a hard bargain run the risk of being labeled “aggressive” or “hard to work with.” This is the double bind of negotiating as a woman—often, an impossible choice between salary and reputation.  

So, what’s a woman to do? Zinchenko offered some tips on how women can boost their negotiation success.

Adjust your language

Start your negotiation with a short preamble that emphasizes a more-communal mind-set—in other words, use the implicit bias to your advantage. Note how well you will argue for the company and how hard you plan to work for its interests. “That simple preamble can defuse the tension,” said Zinchenko, and show your future employer that your ambition doesn’t signify aggression, but rather a desire to work hard for the team. 

Give each other a boost

Studies show that women are less comfortable with self-promotion; during interviews or negotiations, that can mean we’re more likely to give other people credit for our accomplishments. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more straightforward about promoting their own achievements. To get around this, Zinchenko recommends that women call out one another’s successes in the office—or, as she put it, “tooting each other’s horns.”  

Adopt a ‘trade-off’ mentality

Approach a negotiation with the mentality that it’s ultimately a trade-off, rather than a winner-takes-all proposition. Be prepared with concrete suggestions: “I want this much in salary and this many vacation days, or we can decrease the salary and increase the vacation days,” for example. If you demonstrate your desire for a win on both sides, you’ll end up with better options and show that you’re a team player.

Zinchenko spoke at Booth Women Connect Conference 2017, organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The annual event brought together more than 1,000 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking. Join us for this year’s conference on October 12, 2018.

—By Leah Rachel von Essen

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