Women ask for considerably lower salaries in salary negotiations than men but it may be because they are expected to do so, according to a dissertation in psychology by Una Gustafsson at Lund University in Sweden.

Conceptions of good and poor negotiators are tied to stereotypical notions of masculine and feminine characteristics: good negotiators are regarded as being decisive, strong, and self-assertive - masculine qualities. Poor negotiators are seen as being concessive, emotional, and overly focused on relationships, which are regarded as feminine qualities, she says.

But Una Gustafsson also warns against placing the entire blame on the women’s own behavior.

When stereotypical conceptions predict that one’s group will do poorly on an assignment it has been shown that group members perform less well on assignments that they are expected to do poorly on according to the stereotype. In other words, they temporarily confirm the stereotype. For example, black Americans have been shown to score lower on intelligence tests when they are told that the test is a measure of their intelligence (stereotype threat) compared with when they are not told this.

Psychologists call it “stereotype threat.”

The same situation may occur when women negotiate their pay, which is what Una Gustafsson has studied in her dissertation. In one of the dissertation studies she arranged realistic salary negotiations involving 100 economics students at Lund University. Neither the “salary negotiator” nor the students knew what the test was really all about. Half of the participants were told that their negotiating ability was being tested (stereotype threat) and half that their negotiating ability could not be measured. The negotiation situations themselves were exactly the same.

Among those who did not believe that their ability could be assessed, there were no gender differences. But among those who had been told that this ability was being assessed, women demanded SEK 2,000 (USD 325) per month less than men did. They had lowered their sights. When asked to state their ideal monthly salary, it was nearly SEK 6,000 (USD 1,000) lower than what men stated. In contrast, there were no gender differences in setting goals and salary demands when the students negotiated with no awareness that their negotiating ability would be assessed.

But how can women assert themselves more in pay negotiations?

“I believe that if women are made aware of how stereotype threat functions, they will be able to make up their minds to aim well above the mean salary and thereby avoid asking for too little pay,” says Una Gustafsson.

In fact, it has been shown that certain women who were given clear information about the general pattern¬-that women tend to negotiate less well than men¬-suddenly can negotiate better than men. These women probably got angry and succeeded in consciously dissociating themselves from the stereotype.

“Discrimination exists,” she says. “Men find it easier to get what they ask for. Studies have shown that men prefer not to work together with women who make substantial demands in salary negotiations. They are regarded as unpleasant and demanding, whereas men who ask for high salaries are not characterized this way at all.”