A Seat at the Table: Why a Negotiation-Free Workplace Isn’t the Quick Fix for Gender Inequality We’ve Been Hoping For
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Nell Scovell, TV and magazine writer, wrote “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Upon publication, it received quite a bit of criticism for its failure to mention intersectionality—the notion that women of certain races or ethnicities are more marginalized than others—and its faux-feminist suggestion that women make themselves agreeable to those who wield the power (wealthy white men). While “Lean In” may have made the biggest splash in recent years, it joins a slew of other books and articles about how women can and should behave when trying to advance their careers—all advocating, in some way or another, that ambitious women fall back on a narrowly shaped notion of femininity in order to fight their way to the top.
As many critics of Sandberg and her ilk have noted, the real task at hand for women is to fix a system inherently rigged against them. In her 2014 New York Times article “Moving Past Gender Barriers to Negotiate a Raise,” Tara Siegel Bernard notes that women benefit when their coworkers highlight their accomplishments with higher-ups, rather than advocating for their own promotion. Furthermore, they gain ground when they exhibit “feminine” qualities: an appealing physical appearance, kind demeanor, and overall likeability. Men, on the other hand, benefit most by exhibiting those stereotypically masculine qualities—competitiveness, assertiveness, self-assurance, and rationality—that in turn have become associated with “getting ahead.”
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While women must exemplify “feminine” qualities in order to succeed, it is precisely because they are subject to the biases associated with being women that they lose out against their male counterparts. That’s why salary negotiation is a losing game for many women, particularly in male-dominated workplaces, even before they’ve gotten to the table. As Laura Kray argues in “The Best Way to Eliminate the Gender Pay Gap? Ban Salary Negotiations,” even when women eschew their identities and adopt more masculine behaviors at the bargaining table, they’re ultimately judged as women. For most working women looking to climb the corporate ladder, getting their footing just right in this slippery terrain can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
This inherent inequality is part of the reason Ellen Pao decided to ban salary negotiations during her tenure as CEO of Reddit. She made the change shortly after losing a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capital firms. “You have this needle that you have to thread, and sometimes it feels like there’s no hole in the needle,” Pao told the Wall Street Journal on the subject of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” expectations of women in the workplace.
A negotiation-free work policy suggests that all employees are paid based on a job’s market value, rather than on subjective individual characteristics. Additionally, it ignores an employee’s salary history, which can help perpetuate systemic inequality. According to a Carnegie Mellon University study conducted by economist Linda Babcock, 51.5 percent of men and 12.5 percent of women asked for more money when receiving job offers. In other research, she found that when women did ask, they asked for 30 percent less than men requested. Since starting salaries can determine raises and future salaries, women who do not negotiate can lose as much as $750,000 for middle-income jobs and $2 million for high-income jobs over their careers. A negotiation-free workplace policy frees women from the impossible task of striking the right balance between unthreatening, self-effacing woman and aggressive, go-getter man, and disrupts the cycle of discriminative salary hierarchies.
As impactful and beneficial as negotiation-free workplaces are, though, the real solution for healing workplace inequalities lies within a deeper cultural revolution. Gender-based discrimination stems from our society’s closely held, yet limiting definitions of what both “man” and “woman” mean. These signifiers, and all qualities bound up in them, are social constructs whose meanings orbit around each other in an already-set cultural blueprint of human interaction. Women in the workplace are always judged more harshly for violating these conventions. Instituting negotiation-free workplaces may be a step in the right direction, but the workplace will never truly be equal until we work together to break down the barriers that define each gender such that no woman will be judged for “negotiating
like a man.”