Gender Pay Gap: How Negotiation Can Help Women Achieve Equal Pay

Gender Pay Gap

Key points

  • Gender stereotypes in the workplace may affect women’s effectiveness in salary negotiation.
  • Evidence reveals that specific behaviors can help women obtain as good or better negotiation results than men.
  • Negotiating on behalf of another individual, acquiring experience and preparing effectively, can all help women achieve a better salary negotiation outcome.

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You may have heard about the BBC paying women 9% less than men. Or about Tesco, the British giant supermarket where men earn $4.16 per hour more than women in equivalent roles. Or that Salesforce spent $3 Million to bring salaries of women up to their male counterparts?

Yes, the gender pay gap is real. It often starts at the hiring stage when initial salaries are set, and then increases as people get promoted. We might not realize it, but succeeding (or not) in a single salary negotiation may impact pay equity in the workplace. The question is, how?

Why we should bring negotiation to the gender pay gap discussion

In 2015, a team of researchers investigated the difference between men and women in salary negotiation outcomes, namely pay raises and rewards (Mazei et al., 2015). They reviewed 51 empirical studies collectively involving more than 10,000 people, though we should bear in mind that all the sample includes both employees and university students and comes from western countries. It is possible that in non-western cultures, these findings might not apply the same way.

Men seem more likely to succeed in negotiation, but women have what it takes to be just as effective

The evidence shows that overall, men do achieve higher economic outcomes than women. However, this was not the case in every negotiation. Sometimes men’s results were indeed much better than women’s. Other times there was just a slight difference or no difference at all. This implies that achieving higher economic outcomes depends on other contextual factors, such as the situation, the person or the task. Researchers dug a little deeper and found out what actions are more likely to help women be as effective as men.

Three evidence-based recommendations to help women achieve a successful negotiation

There are three elements that may increase women’s chances of getting a fairer salary or raise from a negotiation:

  1. Advocacy: Negotiate on behalf of someone else.

A successful negotiation requires behaviors like assertiveness. Due to gender stereotypes this is something both men and women unconsciously expect from men rather than women. This extends to the belief that women should behave in a more sensitive and considerate way. But what happens when a woman negotiates assertively for herself? The other party might unconsciously perceive this behavior as inappropriate because it’s not aligned with what he/she expects from that gender. However, when women negotiate on behalf of others their behaviors are seen as more in line with what society expects from them, like caring for others. This may feel more acceptable to both parties. Therefore, the first advice is to negotiate on behalf of someone else when you have the opportunity. For example, if you are a woman and you are a manager, you might get better results if you negotiate with your superiors on behalf of a younger female in your team.

  1. Acquire more experience.

The more you negotiate, the more you develop negotiation skills and adhere to negotiation scripts and protocols. Women who don’t have much experience might rely on gender stereotypes, meaning that they may stick to behaviors that won’t work.

  1. Prepare well before starting the negotiation process.

Great negotiation requires great preparation. The evidence points to getting all the information you need, such as the bargaining range, before you begin negotiating. Knowing the upper and lower salary limits for your role will guide your behavior, meaning that you will know what is more acceptable and by extension, what is unrealistic. You will rely on hard facts rather than on unconscious gender stereotypes.

Gender Pay Gap

Takeaways for your practice

We cannot attribute the gender pay gap solely to differences in negotiation because several others factors are known to contribute to pay inequality. Targeting negotiation skills and strategies is one way to create a more equitable and fair workplace. There are three behaviors that might help women get equal pay for equal work. So if you are up for the challenge, then subject to your organizational and national culture, apply the following evidence-based recommendations:

  • Practice makes perfect – rehearse your negotiations. If negotiation skills training is available in your organization, then it’s worth prioritizing it in terms of your own development.
  • Research and know your facts beforehand – make sure you have the relevant information, especially the bargaining range, before you start negotiating. What do we mean by relevant information?
    • what is the salary range? Check out websites like Glassdoor, PayScale, or even ask friends in your field.
    • what are your needs / objectives?
    • what is your added value?
    • beyond money – are there other things in compensation that you value or could help you do your job better (e.g. flex time, training to develop specific skills, etc.)?
  • Negotiate for someone else when you have the opportunity. If you are a manager, then negotiate for someone in your team, for example.
  • Finally, organizations can help too by being transparent, giving the key information in the negotiation process to every party, creating time and space for negotiations to occur, and giving women the opportunity to practice.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that it has a moderately high (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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We thank Gail Greenfield, PhD – Principal in Workforce Strategy and Analytics at Mercer – for her support and guidance in the production of this Evidence Summary.

ScienceForWork is an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners who wants to make work better.

Our mission is to provide leaders and decision-makers with trustworthy and useful insights from behavioural science.


Mazei, J., Hüffmeier, J., Freund, P. A., Stuhlmacher, A. F., Bilke, L., & Hertel, G. (2015). A Meta-Analysis on Gender Differences in Negotiation Outcomes and Their Moderators. Psychological Bulletin, 141(1), 85 – 104.

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