Women can’t win when it comes to negotiation

Equal pay has become a hot issue in the Texas gubernatorial race, and Republicans are making fools of themselves. It started out bizarrely with the head of a Republican SuperPac saying women are “too busy” for equal pay. The head of the Texas Republican Party followed up with another tone deaf comment:

“Men are better negotiators,” Beth Cubriel remarked on “Capital Tonight,” a Texas political news show. “I would encourage women, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators.”

I won’t rehash all the arguments about the need for structural changes to address gender inequality. Republicans aren’t the only ones focusing on women’s behavior as the primary issue; the idea has had something of a resurgence with the Lean In model for women’s advancement.

The way women are conditioned to interact often translates into difficulty being heard and getting ahead (I highly recommend Deborah Tannen’s fascinating Talking from 9 to 5 to dig into gendered communication in the work place). Because our culture tends to value stereotypically male forms of communication, women are thus encouraged to adopt those styles if they want to achieve their goals. But as many women know, it’s a double-edged sword that can get you labeled as bossy or bitchy and can damage your career.

A perfect example of this minefield for women comes in a story making the rounds about a woman who had a tenure track professorship job offer rescinded after she attempted to reasonably negotiate the terms of her offer:

The candidate was shocked. “This is how I thought negotiating worked,” she explained to the Philosophy Smoker in a follow-up missive, “how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: You ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them. I was expecting to get very few of the perks I asked about, if anything … I just thought there was no harm in asking.” The Philosophy Smoker found it “flabbergasting.” (A representative for Nazareth College told us they were unable to comment on a personnel matter; an attempt to reach out to W for comment has so far been unsuccessful.)

As Rebecca Schuman chronicles at Slate, many observers added insult to injury by questioning the audacity of this woman who didn’t gratefully accept the offer that was laid before her. In this framework, women can’t win. If we don’t negotiate, it’s our fault that we aren’t making more money. If we do negotiate, we’re entitled and overbearing, ungrateful for what we’re being offered.

There’s a fine line in policing how women express themselves (I’ve been tempted often by self-undermining tics like constant apologizing or prefacing ideas with self-deprecating phrases like “this is probably a bad idea, but…”). I generally think it’s important to encourage women to be confident in speaking up for their needs and pursuing their goals. But until we shake more of the sexism inherent in our culture those tactics can hurt as much as they help.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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