Children As Young As Eight Show A Gender Gap In Negotiation

By Emma Young

Though the gender pay gap is narrowing in the UK, it still remains. It’s vital, then, to fully understand what causes it — and so what can be done to ensure that women are paid the same as men for doing the same work. Research does show that women are less likely than men to initiate salary negotiations, and also ask for less. Now a new study in Psychological Science reveals that a gender gap in negotiation emerges surprisingly early, becoming apparent among children aged just eight to nine. This implies that efforts to close the gender pay gap should start long before anyone even enters the workforce. 

Sophie Arnold at Boston College and Katherine McAuliffe at New York University studied 240 boys and girls who lived in the Boston area. The children fell into three age groups: 4 to 5, 6 to 7, and 8 to 9. They each completed a simple task, after which an experimenter — either a man or a woman — told them that they could pick from sets of stickers as a reward. Each child was asked: ‘How many stickers do you think you should get for completing the game you just played?’

If the child asked for two or fewer, they were given this number. But if they asked for more than two, the experimenter told them that they were asking for too many and repeated the question. If the child again asked for more than two, they moved to the next negotiation stage. (Of the initial 240 children, 154 — equal numbers boys and girls — reached this stage.)

In this next stage, the kids were told that if they now asked for more stickers than the experimenter could give them, they wouldn’t get any; however, if they asked for the number of stickers that could be handed over, or fewer, they would receive that number. “These rules were introduced to reflect the risk inherent in negotiations, in which the evaluator has all the power to accept or reject an offer,” the researchers write. These children were then asked again how many stickers they thought they should get. If they asked for more than two they were told that only fewer than three stickers could be given. Whatever number they asked for next, the negotiation ended.

Arnold and McAuliffe found that for 8 to 9 year old girls (but not the younger ones), the number of stickers that they initially asked for was lower if the evaluator was male than if the experimenter was female. For the boys, though, neither their age nor the gender of the evaluator affected their initial requests.

The team also looked at how persistent the children were in asking for a relatively high number of stickers. “How long a person continues to ask for a greater bonus could also perpetuate gender differences in outcomes from negotiations,” the researchers note. In fact, they found a similar pattern: the persistence of the older girls (but not the boys) was lower when their evaluator was male. “Our study is the first to show that gender differences in negotiation emerge in childhood,” the researchers write.

So what might explain these early gender differences? It might be that the older girls have acquired the perception that they have a relatively low status, and the male investigator a higher status, the researchers suggest. Stereotypes that boys are naturally more brilliant and competent could also play a role.

“Much attention has been devoted to explaining and closing the gender pay gap, yet these efforts focus almost exclusively on adults,” the researchers note. “Our findings suggest that these efforts should start earlier in development, as early as elementary school.” The next step, of course, is to map out what these efforts should entail, and testing how well they work. However, even if some gender differences in negotiation do help to explain the gender pay gap, other factors are certainly involved, and the onus should be not on employees, but rather employers, to ensure that it closes.  

Children Show a Gender Gap in Negotiation

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest