The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Fighting Bias in Negotiations

Why do women negotiate less often than men?

I gave a talk yesterday about The Hidden Brain at the John F Kennedy School
of Government at Harvard University. My comments centered on The Invisible
Current chapter in my book, which deals with the issue of sexism — how to
identify it, how to measure it, and what we can do about it.

As often happens at these sessions, someone asked what we can do about such
bias. I gave one very specific example drawn from the research into sexism
that shows that men and women tend to negotiate differently based on
whether they are negotiating with a man or a woman. Without anyone’s
conscious awareness, male evaluators tend to be biased against women who
negotiate — for a higher salary, for example. Male evaluators don’t
necessarily like men who bargain for more, but they consider it more
acceptable (in their unconscious minds) for men to negotiate than for women
to do so. By contrast, female evaluators tend not to like negotiators in
general, but they are not biased against women — they feel unfavorably
toward both men and women who ask for more. This research might help
explain observational data that show women are less likely than men to
negotiate in a variety of experimental and real-life settings (especially
when they are negotiating with men). Without their conscious awareness, in
other words, women may be picking up signals that negotiating could hurt

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Negotiating is a potentially unpleasant business, and it is natural that
managers prefer candidates/employees/subordinates who do not bargain.
Nonetheless, negotiating can carry substantial rewards — if
two people are offered a starting salary of $25,000 and one of them
negotiates that up to $30,000 and both people get 3 percent raises for the
next 28 years — the better negotiator will earn $361,000 more over the
course of his/her career.

The goal should not be that managers welcome all negotiators, but that managers
offer equal treatment to both men and women who negotiate. Might we have
fairer results (and potentially increase the number of women willing to
negotiate) if more women were placed more in charge of negotiation
procedures, decisions and outcomes?

You can watch a short video introduction to The Invisible Current here.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.


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