Punished for negotiating?

March 14, 2014

One of the themes I keep coming back to in life and in my work as a journalist is women and negotiation. I find negotiating for more money quite uncomfortable, and so do nearly all my friends. I recommend the book Ask For It to any woman who will listen. So I was fascinated to read this piece on the website Inside Higher Ed about a recent (female) PhD graduate who tried to negotiate a job offer at Nazareth College in upstate New York. The college didn’t want to negotiate. And it went one step further – it rescinded the offer altogether.

Linda Babcock, co-author of Ask For It

Here’s a quick summation of the story (I strongly urge you to read the whole piece on Inside Higher Ed). The woman, who is anonymous, wrote to the college, beginning with the line, “As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier." She then went on to list them. They included an increase in her starting salary (to $65,000) and maternity leave, among others. She ended the email with, “I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.”

The college wrote back saying it thought she was better suited to a research university, and added it was withdrawing its job offer.

The piece has been picked up by multiple blogs and sites including Jezebel (where as you might expect, large helpings of snark are added). But Jezebel makes a good point: this is the exact reaction women fear when they negotiate, or even think about negotiating, and it's why a lot of women don't negotiate at all. Would this same thing have happened to a man?

I just called Linda Babcock to talk about this. Linda is the co-author, with Sara Laschever, of Ask For It. Unless you consider yourself a brilliant negotiator, you should order a copy now – it truly will change your way of thinking about this stuff. She is also an economics professor at the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon Unvieristy in Pittsburgh, and the author of several much-cited studies on women, men, and negotiation. 

“I hate it when my research is right,” she told me. She knows from her work that women receive backlash when they try to negotiate, particularly if they negotiate in an up-front way, as this newly minted academic did. Hiring managers do not like it when a woman comes across as demanding. That behavior flouts expectations of how women are meant to conduct themselves, and can elicit strong negative reactions.

“We can’t prove it wouldn't have happened to a man, but it’s just awfully suspect,” says Linda.

But a listener of mine, a female academic who doesn't want her name used, thinks differently.

“I don't think that was a clear case of sexism,” she says. “I would never try to do that kind of negotiation in e-mail, as when done that way, it looks like a huge list of demands.” She also thought the list of requests showed a mismatch between the candidate's expectations and the reality of academic life. 

“I also think [the requests] probably really rubbed the department the wrong way," she goes on, "because most faculty who have been teaching for a while would have done so without any of those benefits, they may already be feeling like the new hire is being brought in way above their own salaries (at that stage in their careers), and it can breed immediate resentment.” That said, this listener adds that she feels the hiring committee’s response was “completely inappropriate”.

Linda Babcock says even if the faculty at Nazareth College regarded this woman’s requests as over-the-top, couldn’t they have called her to disucss them rather than withdraw the job offer? My two cents: I believe the woman made a mistake in not calling the college to talk over the offer, and sending an email instead, because the email certainly reads as rather abrupt. Linda agrees. “We want women to use a very relational, friendly approach, and it’s hard to do that in an email. The email comes off as very cold, direct, impersonal, and that is not the way people like women to negotiate." 

All the research shows women have to be extremely careful in the way they ask for more. Societal expectations are that women are ‘nice', accommodating creatures. People - men and women - don’t like it when we act any other way. This may be a case where a female candidate came across as too uppity for the faculty's liking, and was punished for it.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this below. Do you think a man writing such a blunt email would have been rejected in the same way?