Commentary: A ‘touch of flirtation’ goes a long way in salary negotiations

Ellen Pao, who lost a high-profile sex-discrimination suit, has banned salary negotiations at Reddit.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Ellen Pao, interim chief executive of Reddit, announced last month a ban on salary negotiations at the social media company. Her stated goal: to eliminate the persistent disadvantage that women have at the bargaining table.

Her pronouncement came just days after Pao lost a high-profile sex-discrimination lawsuit against one of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture-capital firms. Since then, she has insisted that companies “can’t just hide” from sexism in their workplaces and must be proactive in counteracting discrimination.

Still, while it is true that women earn about 78 cents, on average, for every dollar a man makes for comparable work, Pao’s no-negotiating policy has struck many as absurd.

Why take away an important tool for women to achieve equal pay? Why stop a woman with star qualifications from pushing for as much money as she can get?


In a perfect world, I would agree. Many people in the equal-pay debate argue that inferior negotiating skills are at the root of the gender pay gap. Teaching women to be better negotiators — or getting them to negotiate at all — would fix the issue.

But the causes of this problem are more complicated than that. We have two decades of rigorous empirical research on how gender affects contract negotiations. And it all points in the same direction. Put simply: As we practice it in the U.S., negotiation is a man’s game with men’s rules.

At bargaining tables, women’s biggest obstacle isn’t that they can’t learn to be “more like men.” The real problem is that most people, men and women alike, don’t want them to be more like men.

The traits that both men and women associate with good negotiators are tied up with ideas of masculinity — such as rationality, assertiveness and self-assurance — rather than more feminine traits, such as emotionality and accommodation. That association automatically gives men the perceived upper hand in negotiations.

In a 2001 study I co-wrote, we found that fewer than one-third of the surveyed business students believed that women had the advantage in negotiations, while 48% said men had the edge.

The three most-cited reasons for men’s supposed advantage were their strong and firm nature, aggressive and competitive instincts, and strong desire not to lose to a woman.

I co-wrote similar research last year that revealed that these perceptions have held steady. The respondents in that survey expected that women would be nicer negotiators than men but also believed them to be less competent and more gullible.

If women aren’t seen as tough enough at negotiating, why not just train them to “man up”? Unfortunately, even when they do employ traditionally male tactics, women still lose.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of women in business, has advised women to take an alternate route to winning in negotiations — playing up more feminine approaches.

In their job interviews and salary negotiations, Sandberg advises women to always smile, to be “relentlessly pleasant” and “communal,” and to avoid taking a “critical stance.” In other words, be “ ‘appropriately’ female.”

Sadly, Sandberg isn’t wrong. Our research at UC Berkeley supports the success of such tactics, by showing that women improve their chances in negotiations with men by using a touch of flirtation.

Given that salary negotiations ignite the gender pay gap at the starting gate, negotiation-free workplaces are women’s best option for getting the salaries they deserve.

Such policies do come with some risk. A ban on negotiations leaves a lot of power in the hands of employers, who may not be making equal salary offers to men and women in the first place.

The solution is transparency. In an effort to encourage equity and trust, a growing number of companies reveal the salaries of all their employees, sometimes even posting them online. This makes it much harder to hoodwink job candidates and helps eliminate gender discrepancies.

A no-negotiation policy implies that an employer pays based on a job’s market value, rather than based on subjective individual characteristics.

Laszlo Bock, chief of people operations at Google, recently extolled the virtues of this principle for eliminating the pay gap. Even making offers based on an individual’s salary history can perpetuate the problem, he noted. “We figure out what the job is worth, not the person,” he said during a talk in Washington.

Certainly, it would be best if women were judged and treated just as men are when sitting at the negotiating table. But society’s gender biases and discriminating behavior haven’t been overcome in a generation. Pao’s solution of banning salary negotiations is not ideal, but it has the virtue of being grounded in the reality of the world as it is — not as we’d like it to be.

Laura Kray is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. She is the Warren E. and Carol Spieker professor of leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.