The traditional explanation for the gender differences that Babcock found is that men are simply more aggressive than women, perhaps because of a combination of genetics and upbringing. The solution to gender disparities, this school of thought suggests, is to train women to be more assertive and to ask for more. However, a new set of experiments by Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles, who studies the psychology of organizations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, offers an entirely different explanation.
Their study, which was coauthored by Carnegie Mellon researcher Lei Lai, found that men and women get very different responses when they initiate negotiations. Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women's reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice".
I think that is very true in life, not just in the workplace. Even though my mom always tells me that "if you don't ask for something, you're never going to get it," I'm always hesitant to negotiate out of the fear that I'll be perceived negatively -- too aggressive, bitchy, etc. It's probably why, until this year, I haven't been willing to negotiate my rent increase. I didn't want to seem aggressive, or cheap, or whatever -- so it was just easier to pay more.
I don't mean to imply that men don't worry about how others perceive them. That's clearly not fair. I just don't think that they're quite as focused on it as women. You know, like how women stress out about what they're going to wear -- because they're convinced that everyone's going to notice -- and judge them.