Salary negotiation – Why are women less assertive than men in promoting their own interests and demands?

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Women are, in general, less assertive than men in promoting their own professional interests and demands. A lack of initiative in promoting one’s own personal interests is one of the major factors why women earn less than men and why their careers progress much more slowly. Lower incomes put women at financial risk and disadvantage upon retirement, given their lower savings and pensions. Retired women, single women and single mothers are at the greatest risk of poverty. What stands behind this behaviour?

Linda Babcock, a university professor from the USA, began to reflect more deeply on this phenomenon when she was responsible for a post-graduate class for students in the mid-1990s. One day, her female students came to her and asked why male students were the recipients of preferential treatment from the university.

The female students were unhappy that the male students were running their own courses at the university while their female counterparts were only assistant lecturers, and they couldn’t understand why male students travelled to professional conferences and they did not and why male students were able to defer exam dates, while women did not have this option. Babcock began examining what was going on and asked other professors and instructors at the university just why that was the case. She continued to hear the same answer: the male students simply came and asked for such treatment in person. This pushed Babcock to conduct a number of sociological experiments and studies into the degrees of assertive behaviour, which confirmed her hypothesis that men initiated negotiations to achieve their own interests four times more often than women. She then analysed the starting salaries of post-graduate students at the university and came up some interesting findings: male graduates were able to negotiate starting salaries that were at least ten per cent higher than women graduates. Her book, Women Don’t Ask opened the eyes of many women and human resource professionals to create equal conditions at work and to monitor salary inequality in the same jobs.

READ MORE: Six Essential Things Women Need to know When Asking For a Raise


What are the consequences of the low assertiveness women exhibit in negotiations?

A lack of initiative in promoting one’s own personal interests is one of the major factors why women earn less than men and why their careers progress much more slowly. On the other hand, the male ego is stronger. According to data from the salary portal, men have up to 14 per cent higher pay expectations compared to women. They are also more assertive in salary negotiations, have higher career ambitions, are used to negotiating directly and openly in communication, are comfortable analysing and discussing their performance, and simply they negotiate more and are masterful in such negotiations. It must also be noted that men are not judged for this type of conduct. Just the opposite, society naturally expects it from them. And how are women perceived for the same conduct? Women who exhibit this conduct are more likely to be described in a derogatory manner along the lines of “she’s arrogant, bossy, cheeky, a careerist, calculating, reaching too high!”

Career: What’s the cause of the more passive behaviour exhibited by women?

Women are convinced that working hard will naturally be noticed by those they work with and their salary will increase as a result of this natural satisfaction. If women have a good relationship with their boss, they expect him or her to be a mental ally who will promote a salary increase on their behalf. However, women often find themselves disappointed and disillusioned as a result. A large part of this is based on how girls are raised, where the emphasis is placed on being good, nice, obedient, modest and setting aside one’s personal needs for the benefit of others. This can have a major influence on their internal limits and impart fear as to how those around them will react when they express their needs. Women are afraid to stray from that positive image of a nice, pleasant and sweet colleague and turn into a ‘demanding harpy’. Ultimately, negotiations concerning salary or a promotion are largely dependent upon self-representation and highlighting one’s own personal successes; many women struggle to do this as well as men. Women are much more used to considering their surroundings when promoting their own interests compared to men.


In no way does this mean that women are worse negotiators. “Women negotiate like lions when they represent a collective interest or negotiate on behalf of others” says professor Margaret Neale, who has long focused her research on negotiation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Cases exist where female managers negotiate better salaries for subordinates but never take the initiative to increase their own salaries. That is why we at advise women to think about their children, family members and pets when they find themselves in a situation where they need to negotiate for themselves to arrange better conditions on their behalf, because ultimately they will benefit as well 🙂


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Proactive communication directed at women in companies

Managers should keep in mind that men and women are different, they think differently and have different upbringings, even when men and women have equal opportunities at the workplace; the employer should reflect on these differences and strive to take an equitable approach to both. They should avoid situations where female employees approach them to ask why other colleagues receive more favourable treatment, as was the case for professor Babcock. With respect to the career development of women, companies should use pro-active communication and regularly inform them of options and ways to motivate their professional and personal growth. Women find it easier to make decisions if they feel that their company and managers are focused on the career growth of women.

Large corporations often have clear standards established concerning gender diversity and an equitable approach to all employees. Companies should regularly conduct salary audits and avoid large salary differences at the same positions by increasing transparency. Given that most employees do not known how much their colleagues earn,, a salary comparison tool, exists for this purpose; the portal features reliable data from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific to determine current salaries for a specific job in an individual country.

Communication and Market Research Specialist with focus on Compensation & Benefits