Do Women Doctors Need to Negotiate More Assertively?

Shelly Reese


August 05, 2015

In This Article

Ask for It!

Linda Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has coauthored several books on negotiation and the gender divide. She says a key problem is that women, unlike men, don't ask for what they want. She cites data indicating that men initiate negotiations about four times more often than women and are more likely to describe the negotiating process as "winning a ball game" or "a wrestling match," whereas women are more likely to equate it with "going to the dentist."[3]

Perhaps not surprisingly, female physicians were less likely than male MDs and DOs—by an 8%-11% margin—to say that "making good money" is the most rewarding aspect of their job, according to Medscape's latest compensation report.

Women are likewise more pessimistic about what they can achieve through negotiations and ask for far less than men do. The result: On average, even when women negotiate, they receive 30% less than men.

That's a mistake that can have huge financial ramifications over time. By not negotiating hard for a good initial salary, an individual stands to lose more than $500,000 by age 60 years, Babcock says.

The idea that the negotiating process puts women at a disadvantage has gained such traction that Ellen Pao, former CEO of the online message board Reddit, banned salary negotiations in an attempt to tackle gender-based pay disparities. In April, 2015, Pao told the Wall Street Journal, "Men negotiate harder than women do, and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate."[4]

Babcock notes that women "need to be more assertive, but they do need to be careful about how they negotiate." She says research shows people don't really care how a man negotiates, but a woman who negotiates aggressively is often perceived to be difficult, which can negatively affect her future within the organization.

Babcock advises women to:

  • Aim high. Identify the most you're likely to achieve in terms of pay and benefits and the least you're willing to accept. Set targets that are ambitious but realistic, and know what your best alternative is if negotiations fail.

  • Do your research. Talk to friends; search the Internet; and use connections, such as alumnae associations and professional organizations, to learn the going rate for someone with your experience and training. Benchmarking compensation within your organization can be tricky, Babcock says, but not impossible. "You're not going to go to your supervisor and ask, 'What do Drs X, Y, and Z make?' but you can say, 'There are 10 pediatricians in this practice. Can you tell me in which quartile I fall?'"

  • Bargain cooperatively. Identify common goals and keep the other person's perspective and constraints in mind. Work to achieve a win/win situation. "Ask yourself, 'How can I reduce the constraints on their side? What can I bring to the table that's going to make them think this is a good exchange?'"

  • Negotiate everything. Money isn't the only issue on the table. Bargaining for other perks—including resources, a better schedule, extra vacation days, job title, and training opportunities—can help you land a better offer while negotiating collaboratively.

  • Practice. Babcock advises her economics students to practice making small requests and negotiating with a wide array of people before gradually working toward an important and meaningful exchange. Role-playing, which includes dress rehearsals, debriefings, and repetition, will help build your confidence, improve your skills, and refine your strategy.

AMWA considers negotiating such an important component in closing the pay gap that it prefaced its annual meeting in April with a 1-day conference on negotiating and career development. The session was such a success that AMWA intends to offer it annually and create a webinar based on the negotiating component, Dr Rohr-Kirchgraber says.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.