To Close the Gender Gap in Wages, We Need to Start Young

Children are natural negotiators. When taking on a tired parent, a six-year-old can adeptly turn five minutes more at the playground to 10 minutes more, the “last” episode into “just one more” and a kiddie-sized ice cream cone into a sundae with chocolate fudge and sprinkles. These negotiations—often exhausting (“Can I stay up for 10 more minutes? Please! Please! Please!”) and frequently hilarious (“I’ll be your best friend if …”)—seem worlds away from the negotiations children will be engaging in when they grow up and start their first jobs. However, recent research suggests that negotiation in childhood may share at least one of the key features of negotiation in adulthood: namely, girls ask for less than boys.

We know a fair bit about the gender wage gap in adulthood. When a woman starts a job today, she is likely to earn about 18 percent less than a man starting in the same position. What might not be as well-known is that one driving force of this gender wage gap is that women tend to negotiate less than men, at least, in certain contexts. When women and men are negotiating with a woman, they tend to ask for about the same amount. However, when women and men are negotiating with a man, a gap appears, and women ask for—and therefore get—less.

As developmental scientists, and as women who have to do a fair bit of negotiation in our own professional lives, we wondered: Is this something that emerges relatively late, after young adults have developed a more sophisticated understanding of norms and stereotypes surrounding gender and negotiation? Or are these differences more deeply rooted in development, emerging as early as childhood?

To understand when gender differences in negotiation emerge, we gave four- to nine-year-old children the chance to negotiate for a bonus. Children first participated in an unrelated study in which they received small rewards or a prize. Think of this as their base salary. Then, they were given the opportunity to negotiate for their favorite stickers (pets, stars or sea animals) with either a woman or a man. Think of this as their bonus negotiation. The experimenter asked them: “How many stickers do you think you should get for completing that game you just played?” Children could then request as many stickers as they wanted. Much to our surprise, no child asked for a million stickers. Rather, children kept their requests in the relatively modest range of zero to 20 stickers.

We hypothesized that girls, like adult women, would negotiate less than boys and that these differences would be most pronounced when negotiating with a man, and it turns out we were (mostly) right. We found that already by the age of eight, girls are asking for fewer stickers than boys when they are negotiating with a man. In fact, girls asked for about two fewer stickers than boys when negotiating with a man. By contrast, there was no gap in negotiation when girls and boys were negotiating with a female experimenter.

These results are important and perhaps surprising in that they suggest that by third grade we are already seeing the same gender gap in negotiation that we see in adults. This suggests that girls are learning something in their elementary school years or even earlier that leads them to ask for less when negotiating with men. If this gap exists in eight-year-olds, it is no wonder the gap is so pronounced by the time women enter the workforce. These findings raise several exciting questions that deserve our attention.

What are we teaching our girls, implicitly or explicitly, that makes them think that they deserve less from a man than from a woman? Is it seen as less acceptable to negotiate with a man? Are a man’s time and resources perceived as more important than a woman or girl’s? Or perhaps there is a fear that men are more likely to react negatively to larger requests? Maybe it’s not what we’re teaching our girls, but instead that men and women are treating our girls differently. Do men think it’s less acceptable for girls to negotiate? Do men think their time and resources are more important than women’s or girls’? Do men react more negatively when girls ask things of them? Our results highlight the importance of asking these questions, even if we cannot answer them just yet.

So, what can we do? We can start by borrowing lessons from adult negotiation skill workshops. For instance, we can help girls think in concrete terms about what they want before entering into a negotiation where someone else’s wants and needs may interfere with their own. Parents could pay special attention to how they react to the requests of their daughters and sons, bringing awareness to how their responses may convey lessons that they may not want to teach. We could even incorporate negotiation training into elementary school curricula, emphasizing that both girls and boys should feel comfortable advocating for themselves.

The push for negotiation classes for adults and gender equality in the workforce is critical but it may be starting too late. These negotiation patterns do not spontaneously emerge when a young woman gets her first job. Rather, they are the gradual accumulation of experiences throughout childhood and adolescence. Knowing that the gender gap in negotiation emerges so early presents us with an important chance to take a close look at how we are raising our children. We need to teach them that they are deserving of equal treatment regardless of their gender or the gender of the person with whom they are negotiating.

While children are natural negotiators, somewhere along the way their powers of negotiation are corrupted by gendered forces in ways that we are just beginning to understand. Some may be shocked by how early these differences show up, but you should use this shock to reflect on how you (and others around you!) talk to children; only by learning about the negotiation gap can we close it.

This is an opinion and analysis article.



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