Recent research surrounding women in leadership roles, co-authored by business management expert Catherine Tinsley of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, discovered that there is a significant backlash against assertive, self-advocating female negotiators in business.
The study found that this backlash is consistent with negative masculine characterizations. For example, Tinsley and her co-author, Emily Amanatullah of the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, report in “Punishing Female Negotiators for Asserting Too Much…Or Not Enough” that these business women are perceived as dominant and arrogant, and other people don’t want to interact with them on a peer level.
On the other side of the spectrum, women in business who are perceived as non-assertive and “other-advocating” female negotiators suffer from a completely different backlash that Tinsley found to be consistent with negative feminine characteristics. Specifically, these women in business are perceived as weak and gullible, and people don’t want to be led by them. Tinsley explains:
“We found that when female negotiators violate role expectations, they are characterized by negative traits and a lack of positive traits consistent with the ways in which they violated their roles. Assertive, self-advocating female negotiators were attributed negative masculine characteristics, suggesting they were seen as overstepping into male roles. By contrast, nonassertive, other-advocating female negotiators were attributed negative feminine characteristics, suggesting they were viewed as not living up to female roles. Furthermore, these gender attributions mediated social and leader backlash against targeted individuals.”
It’s particularly interesting to note that the study found no backlash consequences for male negotiators despite being characterized similarly to the women under the same study conditions.
Tinsley is an expert in decision making, bargaining and gender dynamics in the workplace. She has served on several committees for the National Academy of Sciences, as well as on editorial boards for various high-profile academic journals including the Academy of Management Journal and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Using her unique experience and knowledge, combined with societal norms theory about the behavior of males versus females, Tinsley’s goal was “to explain why advocacy context moderates backlash.”
Despite the disappointing realities identified through the study, Tinsley offers three general principles women should follow in leadership roles to increase their chances for success:
- Lead on behalf of others.
- Show high levels of status
- Surround yourself with resources.
Real World Implications
Tinsley includes a number of real world implications in the study results, including how it affects the gender pay gap. She writes:
“Our findings have practical implications for the gender wage gap. Despite efforts to minimize it, the wage gap persists between similarly experienced men and women. Though many factors contribute to this state of affairs, disparity in salary negotiations is one that directly affects earning potential. Our research suggests women may accept lower salaries than men not because they are less motivated, but because they feel constrained by behavioral expectations dictated by the gender roles prevalent in society.
“Fortunately, the results of our research that elucidate the cause of the problem also imply practical remedies for managing gendered constraints. An understanding of the gendered constraints on behavioral expression in negotiation allows for discussion of how to alter the situation to relieve the effect of these constraints. For example, the moderating effect of advocacy demonstrates that, in some cases, female gender role expectations align with assertive negotiation tactics. Thus, it may be possible in self-oriented negotiations for women to make a concerted effort at reframing the negotiation into an other-oriented exchange. For example, a woman might link a request for more resources to a benefit for others: more resources for her to do her job better, more money to appropriate refunds due to her organization, or more money for her entire work group.
“Potential remedies also exist at the organizational level, such as compensation systems that are independent of employee self-promotion. Specific compensation systems might rely on objective performance criteria to determine raises and promotion or use peer evaluations to judge a target’s worthiness rather than relying on that individual’s ability to assertively self-promote. By eliminating the need for women to assert themselves to gain value, the organization may be able to mitigate potential gendered pay disparities. “
Follow the link at the beginning of this article to read the complete study report in Elsevier’s Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.