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Unpacking the Gender Pay Gap: The Role of Negotiation and Systemic Barriers

Hi, and welcome back to another edition of Negotiation Matters. This October, I want to tackle a complex issue that is both timely and personal: the gender pay gap and the role of negotiations in alleviating or perpetuating this disparity. Two recent articles offering contrasting perspectives that warrant a nuanced discussion caught my attention.

The Double Standard of "Weak Language"

Adam Grant's recent op-ed, "Women Know Exactly What They are Doing When They Use Weak Language,” suggests that “disclaimers (I might be wrong but. . .), hedges (maybe, sort of) and tag questions (don’t you think?)” can be a strategic advantage for women. He suggests that women who consciously make this choice often fare better than "aggressive" or assertive women (e.g., Black women can face backlash when asking to be paid their value - without burying their ask in tentative language).

Grant's perspective, while well-intentioned, misses the mark in several ways. First, it does not pay enough attention to the systemic gender pay gap, where women make 83 cents to every dollar a man makes. Second, I was left with the impression that if women could only figure out an appropriate way to ask - because for the longest time, it was assumed that women don't - whether it be through "weak language" or as suggested by a former Microsoft CEO, simply "trusting" the system, they could help solve the gender pay gap. That is far from the case and perpetuates the double bind women find themselves in.

Current data suggests that women are penalized for asking, regardless of how they ask; women are also often advised to adjust/calibrate the way they ask for a raise. It is almost as if, no matter what women do, women can’t seem to get it right. It is as if the suggestion of continuing to use weak language is a mechanism to navigate the current systemic inequities. Instead, our collective goal should be to dismantle systemic inequality and address the issue at the root cause level. So, while the suggestion may be well-intentioned, one significant unintended consequence would be that it perpetuates the current inequities.

  1. Intersectionality: Grant's theory doesn't account for the unique challenges women of color face, who often confront stereotypes and discrimination beyond gender alone.

  2. Socialization and Power Dynamics: The article assumes that women consciously choose to use "weak language," ignoring the societal conditioning that influences how women communicate from a young age.

  3. Ethics and Effectiveness: Suggesting that women use "weak language" to manipulate perceptions is unethical and counterproductive, as research shows that such language can undermine credibility and self-esteem.

  4. Reinforcing the Status Quo: By advocating for "weak language," the article inadvertently perpetuates existing gender stereotypes and power imbalances.

Debunking the Gender Pay Gap Myth

On the other hand, a recent study led by Vanderbilt Professor Jessica A. Kennedy challenges the myth that women don't ask for higher pay. The research shows that women actually negotiate their salaries more often than men but face more barriers and discrimination when they do.

This research aligns more closely with my findings in healthcare negotiations. It's not that women aren't asking; it's that they're not heard or are actively penalized when they do. The problem isn't women's negotiation skills; it's that the system is failing to listen to them and respond.

The Gender Pay Gap: Beyond Weak Language and Into Systemic Solutions


The Vassar Case: A Microcosm of a Larger Issue

The recent Vassar College lawsuit is a stark reminder that no industry is immune to gender pay disparities. According to data, the gender pay gap among full professors at Vassar has widened over the years. This is not an isolated incident but a reflection of a broader systemic issue in academia and beyond. Female professors in the U.S. earn 17.7% less than their male peers, and in healthcare, the gap is even more glaring at 24%.

My Take: Time for Real Change

As someone deeply involved in healthcare negotiations and academia, I find it disheartening when the focus is shifted away from systemic solutions. It irks me when white men, who often earn significantly more than women of color, offer advice that doesn't address the true drivers of disparity. Telling women that it's okay to use "weak language" or that women know what they are doing when choosing this mode of communicating misses the mark. This is not the message we should send, especially when encouraged to initiate negotiations, make counter offers, and start the negotiation by anchoring their opening offer high. 

Actionable Negotiation Strategies for Women

While addressing systemic issues is crucial, it's also essential to equip ourselves with effective negotiation strategies. Here are some actionable skills that women can employ:

  1. Link Interests to Others: Before entering a negotiation, understand what you want and what the other party is looking for. Frame your requests in a way that aligns with their interests as well. To do this may take research and time, but it is a worthwhile investment.

  2. Promote Open Communication: Be transparent about your needs and concerns, but also be willing to listen. Open dialogue can often lead to mutually beneficial solutions.

  3. Know Your Value and Make It Visible: Before you even start negotiating, assess your own value. What unique skills or perspectives do you bring to the table? How have you gone above and beyond compared to your peers? Make these skills and traits visible during the negotiation.

  4. Enlist Allies and Amplify Points: Don't go it alone. Bring in colleagues or other stakeholders who can vouch for your contributions. Use these allies to amplify your points and level the playing field.

  5. Reframe and Redirect: If you find that the negotiation is veering off course or that you're being undermined, don't hesitate to reframe the conversation. Name the tactics being used against you and redirect the focus back to the issue at hand.

What Else Can We Do?

  1. Transparency in Pay: Employers should be transparent about how they determine pay and promotions. This will not only benefit women but also create a more equitable workplace for everyone.

  2. Challenge Stereotypes: We need to challenge the stereotypes that dictate how men and women "should" behave in professional settings. This includes questioning popular narratives that offer oversimplified solutions to complex problems.

  3. Legislation: Support for pay equity legislation is crucial. Policies that prevent employers from considering a candidate's salary history can be a step in the right direction. Policies that level the playing field can make a significant difference.

Final Thoughts

The issue of women in negotiation is not just about the words we use; it's about dismantling a system that perpetuates inequality. Let's focus on systemic solutions that address the root of the problem rather than asking women to navigate a maze of double binds. The challenges women face in negotiation are not just about individual tactics; they're deeply rooted in systemic inequalities. However, by equipping ourselves with effective strategies, we can navigate these challenges more effectively while advocating for broader systemic change.


"Women's Earnings 83 percent of Men's, but Vary by Occupation." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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