For women in the corporate world, gender bias can make negotiating tricky, but research shows that women have unique strengths they bring to the table. The recent focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has highlighted how gender bias can affect both people and profits. Women are still expected to be “nice” in negotiations and that’s a problem, but advances on the DEI front will hopefully ensure that future generations of professional women will sit down at a more equitable table. In the meantime, women can leverage a number of proven strategies to make the most of their unique advantages as negotiators.
Strong Problem-Solving Skills Women Make Excellent Negotiators
Compared with men, women tend to be more cooperative, empathetic and ethical, traits that are linked with an increase in long-term value for companies. These traits also make women highly effective problem solvers. According to 2017 research from Laura Kray at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jessica Kennedy at Vanderbilt University, women excel at generating goodwill through problem solving. The researchers found that “women possess unique advantages as negotiators, including greater cooperativeness and stronger ethics. But often those strengths are overlooked or severely undervalued.”
A 2015 meta-analysis by Jens Mazei et al. at the University of Münster examined 11,000 data points on gender differences in negotiation outcomes and found that women excelled in negotiations when they had negotiation experience, received information about the bargaining range and negotiated on behalf of another individual. These studies and others point to the advantages women bring to the negotiating process, which is essentially a problem-solving exercise.
The Role of Likability in Negotiations
We tend to judge people based on two dimensions: likability (perceived lack of threat) or professionalism. In social psychology, this is known as the stereotype-content model. Traditional social biases lead most of us to expect likability from women first. And women who display competence or professionalism tend to be perceived as less likeable. Loss of likeability is generally problematic in negotiations because people are more easily influenced by people they like. So, when people lose likeability, they tend to lose capability to influence.
A 2010 study by Emily T. Amanatullah, who was then at the University of Texas at Austin and is now a Research Fellow at Georgetown University, and Michael W. Morris of Columbia Business School found that when women negotiate assertively, they experience backlash equally from men and women because the assertive behavior is perceived as incompatible with traditional female gender roles. The study indicates that many women anticipate this backlash and adjust their negotiating behavior to mediate it. In these situations, “women hedge their assertiveness, using fewer competing tactics and obtaining lower outcomes,” the researchers state.
But the study also indicates that women are expected to negotiate assertively on behalf of others and may even face backlash if they are perceived to not be bargaining hard enough when negotiating for someone else’s benefit. In sum, the study found that when women negotiate assertively on behalf of themselves, they lose social capital, but they also lose social capital if they are perceived as not being assertive enough when negotiating on behalf of someone else.
“When women try to negotiate like men, they get penalized for it,” says Maria Konnikova, journalist, professional poker player and author, most recently, of the New York Times best-seller The Biggest Bluff. Konnikova says women generally can’t just ask for what they want in a negotiation, but have to go through extra steps and use different tactics to achieve the outcome they seek.
Konnikova, who holds a PhD in Psychology from Columbia, says that when she first started playing poker professionally, she realized she was letting her male opponents bully her because she cared about whether they thought she was nice. The experience forced her to confront elements of her personality that she could ignore in other settings, where she typically viewed herself as a strong, capable negotiator, but which were keeping her from succeeding at the poker table.
“Poker showed me how often I backed down from conflict to dodge unlikability,” Konnikova says. “I realized I was leaving money on the table and risked going broke.” Reckoning with that tendency made her a stronger player, she notes, and she now advises other women to take the time to really get to know themselves, their biases and their hang-ups, so they can be the strongest version of themselves when negotiating at any table.
How Women Can Negate the Effects of Gender Bias to Win at the Negotiating Table
Researchers and successful negotiators recommend a number of tried-and-true strategies that can drive negotiation success for women in corporate settings, including the following:
- Don’t call it a negotiation. Reframe negotiations as problem-solving exercises to reduce the impact of any gender bias other parties may be consciously or unconsciously acting on and focus on clear communication and empathy, areas where women typically outperform men. “I personally don’t ever frame a negotiation as a negotiation. I always say that I’d like to have a discussion,” says Mara Olekalns, Professor of Management (Negotiations) at the Melbourne Business School.
- Avoid direct asks for yourself. Framing negotiations with opening statements such as “I want this” or “I need [a particular outcome]” can, unfortunately, trigger gender bias, so phrasing asks in another way can be useful for women. Professor Olekalns suggests this strategy works well even in salary negotiations: she says that rather than asking for a salary increase directly, it can be helpful for women to frame the ask as something like “I was just at a conference where I learned about compensation packages that are normative in our industry and I feel like mine is falling behind.”
- Use inclusive language. Rather than framing discussions around “I” and “me,” which pushes people apart, talk in terms of “we” and “us” to foster the notion that the negotiation is a joint problem-solving activity.
- Be aware of acting differently in order to be perceived as more likable. Changing the tone or pitch of your voice, giggling, or laughing may be common physical responses to interactions that involve conflict or require negotiation, but these behaviors can reinforce gender biases and weaken your negotiating power.
- Invest time in building a strong rapport with the other person. “You can draw hard lines, you can deliver hard truths, you can set the bookends of what you’re willing and not willing to tolerate, but there has to be trust from the other side that you’re doing it for a good reason,” says Kiersten Stead, who negotiates multimillion-dollar deals daily as a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm DCVC Bio. Stead says that the secret is to invest time and energy into understanding the people you’re dealing with, so you know what kind of people they are, what their aspirations are and how the particular negotiation you’re working on with them fits into their lives.
Women bring problem-solving skills and personality traits to the table that make them highly effective negotiators. Although negotiating can be trickier for women, they can adopt specific strategies that are proven by research and that have been tried and tested by the professionals cited in this article. These strategies work because they enable women to steer clear of backlash while leveraging their unique capabilities and advantages as negotiators.