The Gender Gap in Negotiation May Start Very Young

New research finds girls are less willing to negotiate with men than women.

Posted Jan 24, 2021

Sora Shimazaki/Pexels
Source: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

Though the Equal Pay Act was passed in the U.S. in 1963, most economists still find evidence for a notable wage gap between men and women. Arguments about the source and nature of this gap can be contentious, with some arguing that the primary source of the gap is discrimination, and others arguing the gap results primarily from women’s choices about the type and amount of work they do. In recent years, a popular explanation for why women may be paid less than men places the blame squarely on women, arguing that women simply cannot or will not negotiate their salary as aggressively as men will.

Social scientists have poked and prodded at gender differences in negotiation from a variety of angles. Most empirical studies conclude that, on average, men achieve better economic outcomes than women in negotiations, though this trend depends on factors like how much negotiation experience a woman has and whether she is negotiating on behalf of herself or someone else.

New research out of Boston College and New York University tackles the question of gender differences in negotiation ability in an entirely new way, asking how early in childhood these differences might emerge.  

The researchers engaged 240 children (all from the Boston area) in the study. The children ranged in age from 4 to 9 years old. The negotiation task the children navigated was developed to mirror real-life, adult negotiations. In most negotiation settings, someone makes an initial request. Ideally, this initial request should be somewhat high, as it provides an anchor for the rest of the negotiation. If you ask for too little at the outset of a negotiation, you’re likely to get exactly what you asked for: not enough. In this study, children negotiated for stickers, a cherished reward for most kids.

Javon Swaby/Pexels
Source: Javon Swaby/Pexels

First, the children engaged in some lab tasks unrelated to the negotiation. These basic tasks required children to answer questions or make choices about resource allocation. In general, these tasks don’t show gender differences, so there was no reason to imagine they would affect the later negotiation task. Children were randomly assigned to have either a male or female experimenter. After completing the first set of tasks, the experimenter told the child that he or she did a good job and offered them stickers as a bonus. The child could pick their favorite type of sticker from three options. That’s when the negotiation began. The experimenter asked the child, “How many stickers do you think you should get for completing the game you just played?”

The children had no idea how many stickers they could receive. The researchers set the rules ahead of time so that if a child asked for two or fewer stickers, their request was accepted and the study ended. If the child asked for more than two stickers, the experimenter would say they had asked for too many and would give the child another chance to request a specific number of stickers. But first, the experimenter would explain that if the child asked for too many stickers, they wouldn’t get any stickers at all. The study authors explain that this approach was designed to mimic the risk present in most real-life negotiations: If you ask for too much, you might not get anything. The experimenters checked to make certain that the children understood the rules of the negotiation before proceeding.

Cottonbro/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

For the youngest children in the sample, the researchers did not find strong evidence of gender differences in terms of how many stickers the children initially requested, or their willingness to persist at the negotiation. However, a striking pattern emerged in the girls’ data. By around 8 years old, girls’ sticker requests differed substantially based on whether the experimenter was a man or a woman. When the experimenter was a woman, older girls asked for more stickers than younger girls did. But when the experimenter was a man, older girls asked for significantly fewer stickers than younger girls. Additionally, older girls asked for fewer stickers than boys did (around 3 stickers vs. around 5 stickers). Boys’ negotiations did not differ based on the gender of the experimenter.

The girls’ reluctance to negotiate with a male experimenter is consistent with research examining negotiation patterns in adult women. For example, one study found that women are less likely to attempt to negotiate with a man than a woman, and that they are more nervous about negotiating with a man.

How do we make sense of these findings? It’s possible that by 8 years old, girls have learned to perceive themselves as being of lower status than men and that their negotiations (or lack thereof) reflect these perceptions. Another possible explanation is that girls have learned to stereotype men as being especially competent or powerful, and thus feel less confident about negotiating with them compared to negotiating with women. Regardless of why this pattern emerged, this study makes an essential point for anyone concerned about potential gender differences in negotiation. If you want to help women be more comfortable negotiating with men, you’re going to need to start early.