When the issue of unequal pay comes up, one of the explanations that you commonly hear is that men are simply more willing to ask for higher salaries upfront than women are, and that an initial difference in pay is rarely corrected as people move through their respective careers. A recent meta-analysis with a combined population of more than 10,000 people from different walks of life confirms that this is basically true, but that the role of gender can be moderated and even reversed depending on the context the negotiations take place in.

“The gender difference favoring men was reduced when negotiators had negotiation experience, were provided with information about the bargaining range, and when advocating for another individual,” says the study written by Jens Mazei, Joachim Hüffmeier, Philipp Alexander Freund, Alice F. Stuhlmacher, Lena Bilke, and Guido Hertel. “Equally important, the gender difference favoring men was even reversed under conditions of lowest role incongruity for women… differences between men and women in economic outcomes are not inevitable but strongly depend on the context.”

Negotiation: Women face a trade-off that men don’t while negotiating

According to the study, gender roles influence negotiation because people who don’t conform to expected gender roles risk incurring a backlash from the people around them, but the traits that are advantageous in most negotiations (assertiveness, being competitive) line up with traditional male gender roles. So women are faced with a trade-off between advocating themselves and adhering to expectations that men typically don’t.

This effect flattens out when you compare experienced negotiators, but there could be a selection effect here (only skilled negotiators are going to make it a central part of their career, regardless of gender). Other moderating factors (eg advocating on someone else’s behalf) simply reduce the conflict between effective negotiating tactics and social expectations.

Inequality without overt sexism

The authors’ conclusion is probably more controversial (maybe even a little uncomfortable), but it does make sense from the findings. Since changing the context of negotiations changes which gender performs better, social expectations play a big role in perpetuating differences in pay and other unequal economic outcomes. It’s possible to have systemic inequality without anyone being overtly sexist, creating a challenge that is harder to pin down but just as important to address if we want to have an equal society.