The economic challenges of COVID-19 have hit women hard. Job losses and childcare responsibilities disproportionately affect women.1 These circumstances are pushing a quarter of working women to consider
quitting or working less.2 In a recent Deloitte global survey, 60 percent of working women questioned whether fighting for a promotion or raise would pay off.3 This winter I researched how negotiation
principles could help women reach their career goals for pay, position, and workload even in the midst of the pandemic. I interviewed two dozen women early in their careers in Boston about their experiences
with negotiations. These interviews were followed with coaching sessions on how to negotiate more effectively. This article shows why negotiations skills are critical for women throughout their careers and gives practical advice on how women can overcome barriers in negotiations.
Women negotiate job offers less often because they pay a higher social cost for negotiating than men. Social cost refers to people wanting to work with
women less after negotiating with them.4 Research shows that by not negotiating her first salary, a woman could earn half a million dollars less during her lifetime.5 Among the women I interviewed, half said
they had worse relationships after a negotiation or did not negotiate a job offer because they feared backlash. The good news is that women achieve outcomes similar to men when candidates are explicitly told that negotiations are expected.6 Women are not bad negotiators by nature, but they face different social expectations than men.
Women are less likely to get promoted, even when they are just as qualified to lead, want more responsibilities, and ask for promotions at the
same rate. Women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted from an entry-level position to manager.7 The difference in career trajectory between women and men is the biggest contribution to the gender pay gap.8
Common myths that justify the discrepancy in promotions is that women are less capable candidates for leadership, do not want more responsibilities, or are less likely to advocate for themselves.9
These myths are not supported by evidence. First, women leaders are consistently ranked as more competent leaders than their male counterparts during a crisis.10 Second, women are just as interested in getting promoted as men are—in fact, 90 percent of the women I interviewed said that they wanted to learn how to negotiate a promotion, but many were unsure how to do so. Lastly, multiple studies show that women are now asking for promotions as often as men.11,12
Uncertainty in a negotiation makes negotiations challenging for women. Uncertainty about what is negotiable, how to negotiate, or who to negotiate with increases anxiety and lowers leverage in negotiations. When women lack the social support networks that men might have—such as mentors at work—they are more likely to face uncertainty in a negotiation. Access to social networks can vary by class, race, sexual orientation, and other factors, so not all women face the same barriers to social networks. The following steps can help women reach their career goals in negotiations.13
- Resolve to ask. The risk of paying a social cost for negotiating decreases when seeking mutually beneficial arrangements—especially for women.14 Think creatively about how you could achieve your career
goals while helping your employer, then commit to advocating for yourself. Remember to consider your career goals, not just pay. How could you advance your career by negotiating new responsibilities, schedule flexibility, or professional development?
- Prepare to ask. Lean on your community to decrease uncertainty about the upcoming negotiation. Who could help you learn about the market rates for compensation? One woman in our workshop learned the salary range for a job offer she was considering by talking to a former employee she knew. You might contact people from your alumni network, family,
or colleagues—the broader you reach, the better. As you prepare to negotiate a promotion, you might ask, “Who could I talk to about the skills I would need to advance?” Find people willing to go to bat for
you—whether male or female (interestingly, women are less likely to face backlash in negotiations when they are advocating on behalf of others).15
- Ask. Appeal to your employer’s values and interests when you ask. Several women I interviewed said they usually appealed to personal reasons for a raise, like the rising cost of living. But requests are more likely to be perceived as legitimate if you appeal to the values of your negotiating counterpart. You might ask for a new professional development opportunity by saying, “I know we value delivering
the most cutting-edge products to our clients. Having me attend the upcoming training will enable us to deliver that to clients.”
- Ask again. Leave the door open if you do not get your desired outcome in the first conversation. Many women I spoke to said that they did not know how to respond when they were initially told no. As you prepare to negotiate, consider what alternatives you could suggest if your first proposal is denied. During your initial conversation, you will gain more
information about what is negotiable and your counterpart’s interests, which you can use at a future date. If you hear no, ask your counterpart to explain more about how they made their decision, thank them for
the information, and then prepare to ask again—in a new way and perhaps with new stakeholders.
Women are more likely to achieve their career goals through negotiations when they resolve to ask, prepare strategically, and are creative and persistent in advocating for themselves. Negotiating skills alone will not close the gender pay gap, but they can help women take advantage of opportunities for raises, promotions, and flexibility in scheduling. Ensuring
women can achieve their career goals is good for business, too. Organizations thrive when women are well represented in executive leadership, as company profits and share performance can be close to 50
percent higher.16 Fortunately for all genders, women winning is win-win.
Zoe Williams is on education leave from
McKinsey & Company to pursue a master’s in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Zoe is conducting policy research for the Women’s Foundation of Boston on how to expand women’s access to career negotiation training. She is a member of Harvard’s Oval Office program, which trains women for future service in government and aims to close gender gaps in political leadership.
1 Patricia Cohen, “Recession With a Difference: Women Face
Special Burden,” The New York Times, 17 November 2020, www.
2 Sarah Coury et al., “Women in the Workplace 2020,”
McKinsey Insights, 30 September 2020, https://www.
3 Rachel Ranosa, “The pandemic is taking a toll on women’s
career growth,” Human Resources Director, 29 October 2020,
4 Hannah Riley Bowles, “Why Women Don’t Negotiate Their
Job Offers,” Harvard Business Review, 19 June 2014, https://hbr.
5 Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Princeton University Press, 2003).
6 Benjamin Artz, Amanda Goodall, and Andrew J. Oswald,
“Research: Women Ask for Raises as Often as Men, but Are Less
Likely to Get Them,” Harvard Business Review, 25 June 2018,
7 Coury et al., “Women in the Workplace 2020.”
8 Hannah Riley Bowles and Bobbi Thomason, “Negotiating Your
Next Job,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2021,
9 Kim Elsesser, “The Gender Pay Gap and the Career Choice
Myth,” Forbes, 1 April 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2019/04/01/the-gender-pay-gap-and-the-career-choicemyth/?sh=def6c01114ad.
10 Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “Research: Women
Are Better Leaders During a Crisis,” Harvard Business
Review, 30 December 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/12/
11 Coury et al., “Women in the Workplace 2020.”
12 Artz et al., “Research: Women Ask for Raises as Often as Men.”
13 Drawn from my experiences as a young professional woman
and research conducted by negotiations experts Hannah Riley
Bowles and Bobbi Thomason.
14 Riley Bowles, “Why Women Don’t Negotiate Their Job Offers.”
15 H.R. Bowles, L. Babcock, and K.L. McGinn, “Constraints and
triggers: Situational mechanics of gender in negotiation,” Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology 89, no. 6 (2005): 951–65, doi:
16 Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle et al., “Diversity wins: How inclusion
matters,” McKinsey Insights, 19 May 2020, https://www.