Thursday, June 12, 2014

Don't Lean In

It shouldn’t be news. I posted about it in March.

Sheryl Sandberg sold women some very bad advice. As a negotiating strategy, leaning in often backfires.

Yesterday, Maria Konnikova drew the same conclusion from the same unfortunate experience. You may recall the case of the young woman who, having just been hired for a tenure track position at Nazareth College chose to apply the lessons of leaning in to her negotiation.

Before even accepting the job, she sent off a series of demands, couched as negotiating positions. The college, wisely, rescinded the job offer. I hope that Sandberg can find her a position at Facebook.

So far, so good.

Next, Konnikova went me one better: she consulted with experts in the field of negotiation and gender. What she found was not what Sandberg was selling.

In her words:

Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, has been studying gender effects on negotiation through laboratory studies, case studies, and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields. She’s repeatedly found evidence that our implicit gender perceptions mean that the advice that women stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations may not have the intended effect. It may even backfire.

In four studies, Bowles and collaborators from Carnegie Mellon found that people penalized women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. The effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate. Evenwomen penalized the women who initiated the conversation, though they also penalized the men who did so. They just didn’t seem to like seeing someone ask for more money.

And also:

It’s not that men are immune from being seen as tough or unlikeable when they make aggressive demands. Attempting to negotiate can make anyone seem less nice, Bowles repeatedly found. But it’s only women who subsequently suffer a penalty: people report that they would be less inclined to work with them, be it as coworkers, subordinates, or bosses. The effect is especially strong, Bowles has found, when people observe women who engage in salary negotiations. “Money in particular seems to be a hot one,” she says.

One suspects that the problem is not in the negotiation, but in negotiating like a man. No one will respect you for pretending to be something  you are not.

Konnikova explains:

Women are potentially being evaluated according to different criteria, even if the person doing the evaluation doesn’t realize it. Julie Phelan and her colleagues at Rutgers have found that, when women are already in the hiring or promotion process—that is, when their credentials have already been screened and they are in the interview phase—the focus shifts away from their competence and toward their social skills. That effect is absent for male candidates.

Then, unfortunately, Konnikova began to follow her experts and blamed sexism:

Female leaders who try to act in ways typically associated with male leaders—assertive, authoritative, directive—are seen far more negatively than males.

She also writes:

Women who don’t negotiate may not be refraining because they are shy. They may, instead, be anticipating very real attitudes and very real reactions that are borne out, time and again, in the lab and in the office. 

She concludes that this all proves that discrimination still exists, but that it has become more implicit.

Of course, for the argument to stand, one would have to say that men and women are fundamentally the same, but that cultural stereotypes are forcing people to see them differently.

Dare we say, this argument defies science.

Surely, Sandberg’s telling women to lean in is not a new idea. In the past women were told to be more assertive. Unfortunately, Sandberg is more the problem than the solution.

If Sandberg frames the choice between negotiating like a man and not negotiating at all, most women will choose the latter. 

As it happens, it’s a false choice.

One may take Sandberg’s point and say that women should negotiate, but one must add that a woman can and should be able to negotiate effectively while not pretending to be something she is not. 

Why is it that feminists still believe that the only way a woman can succeed in business is by pretending to be a man?


Ares Olympus said...

Interesting research. If we've discovered an innate gender bias, it could be taken further, including a racial bias, and I although wonder about a height bias, or voice quality in men.

I think its interesting to observe bias, for your own self-awareness rather than to be shamed.

I like the idea we can recognize a sort of rational ideal which we aspire, and then compare it to "instinctual" reality of things we are not entirely aware.

I admit I'm not convinced "being assertive" is categorically male, but if we're going to generalize, you can consider that masculine also can mean "failing a lot", so if you have a chance to ask out 1000 women you don't know on a date, you can afford to make a fool of yourself 980 times, and then take lessons from the 20 success cases of what works.

So if women give up "leaning in" because of one failure, because the formula didn't work, then that's not very masculine behavior, and not worthy of the 784th attempt that finally succeeds. But who wants to fail that much? Are there any rewards to women that they'll work that hard to become BS artists?

David Foster said...

I've only skimmed the Bowles study, but for starters I have to question whether a random selection of university students, or a random selection of adults in general, is at all representative of the experienced executive and managers who actually make real-life hiring decisions.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there are times to lean in, and maybe there are times to back off. Or do nothing.