For many working women, Robin Wright just lived the dream. She used the nuclear option to negotiate equal pay, and it totally worked.
As the Huffington Post first reported, the House of Cards star threatened to go public with the pay discrepancy between herself and co-star Kevin Spacey unless the studio gave her a raise.
“I was like, 'I want to be paid the same as Kevin,’” Wright said on Tuesday. “I was looking at the statistics and Claire Underwood's character was more popular than [Frank's] for a period of time. So I capitalized on it. I was like, 'You better pay me or I’m going to go public. And they did."
Wright got a pay bump from a reported $420,000 an episode to what Spacey was making, a reported $500,000. The ultimatum paid off.
So what does this mean, sisters and comrades? Is today the day we march on our boss' offices and demand the same? Is now the time when the patriarchs who conspire to condemn us to a lifetime of lost wages and shitty retirement funds will finally know our wrath?
Well, we might want to talk about it first.
The scorched earth strategy may be a powerful tool for some women, but a body of research on gender and negotiation has found that threatening to burn down the house to get what you want has the potential to seriously backfire. Leveraging threats may not work terribly well for anyone, regardless of their gender, but studies have shown that women are treated considerably harsher when they're perceived as aggressive.
But clearly, Wright understood that she was in a position to play hardball at a lower potential risk. As one half of the villainous, threesome-loving Underwood couple, Wright is essential to the series. She also had data to support the claim that she was an equally valued character.
On top of that, she probably made the calculation that it would look really, really bad for Netflix if she called them out for paying female leads less than their male counterparts. The dirty laundry aired in the Sony leak, as well as an active federal investigation into gender discrimination in Hollywood, only help create the conditions for that kind of hard ask.
And worst case scenario, if the studio said "go ahead, tell the world" and denied her the raise—or if they killed off her character—Wright has the financial security to walk. She is worth an estimated $60 million, which, you know, buys you some room if you lose your job.
But for women who are not the co-leads of a breakout Netflix series, or who do not have many (many, many, many) lifetimes of average salaries in net assets, asking your boss for more can be a complicated line to walk. Or as Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of multiple studies on gender and negotiation, told The New Yorker : “Women are more reticent to negotiate than men, for good reason.”
For one thing, researchers have found that women can face negative social consequences when they demonstrate behaviors that don’t match up with traditional gender norms.
Those negative social consequences can come in the form of alienating managers. According to four studies published by Harvard University in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, managers penalized women for initiating salary negotiations more than they did men:
“[W]omen paid a higher social cost for initiating compensation negotiations than men, but only with male evaluators. Attempting to negotiate for higher compensation had no effect on men’s willingness to work with men, but it had a significantly negative effect on men’s willingness to work with women.”
So that's negotiation in general. But what about, say, threatening to publicly expose your employer for paying women less than men?
“There are very few contexts where the person hiring you wants to see you play hardball—whether you are a man or a woman,” Deepak Malhotra, a professor in the Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School, told the Harvard Business Review on the question of aggressive negotiating tactics.
Hardball for women, layered as it is with all those other gendered expectations and biases, is even more complex.
“Tragically, women do face greater potential backlash than do men when they try to negotiate for higher salaries," Malhorta continued. Reducing the likelihood of backlash generally means ensuring that “the other side sees the negotiator—man or woman—as being fair-minded, empathetic, collaborative, and well-prepared to discuss not only what is appropriate, but how best to achieve it.”
In other words, not making threats.
As I have pointed out before, Leaning In is kind of a shitshow for women. And by putting too much focus on women's behavior and tone, this industry of advice often lets the structures and institutional biases that serially undervalue women's work off the hook.
That doesn't mean women shouldn't do it. But it does mean proceed with caution.
Or you may find yourself Zoe Barnes'd, professionally speaking.