Women and Negotiation: Why and How Men Should Come to the Table

Women and Negotiation: Why and How Men Should Come to the Table

A book about women and negotiation caught my attention recently. It is called Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Ms. Babcock is a professor of economics and Ms. Laschever is a writer, both based in the United States. The book summarizes research conducted by Ms. Babcock and others about women’s general reluctance to negotiate, as well as the challenges faced when they do.

I do not pretend to be an expert in this area of research. Even though I am a lawyer and mediator and I’ve consulted to organizations in the areas of gender balance, women’s leadership and diversity, at the end of the day I am a white American man with my own life experience. With that said, I have read much of the research about how men and women tend to operate differently at times, and my experience is usually consistent with that research.

The Research

The authors of Women Don’t Ask assert that women often get less because they ask for less. Not only do women aim lower, according to the research, but in many cases they don’t ask at all. [In a conversation I recently had with Ms. Laschever, she reminded me that in actuality women negotiate all the time; they just tend not to negotiate on their own behalf.]  Why is that? Because, according to the research, women are less sure of what is negotiable and the parameters of what would constitute a good deal. The research further concludes that, for women, in many cases the social costs of negotiating seem much higher than the benefits. Women might have learned that to ask is to be argumentative, unpleasant or uncooperative, and so they might avoid negotiating.

The authors note in this book that in some contexts women are generally more effective negotiators than men. They generally negotiate well with other women and with men who use a cooperative negotiation style, and in negotiations in which creative problem-solving or moving beyond “fixed pie” solutions are possible. The authors conclude that women have the advantage in these types of negotiations because they require communication, information sharing, trust building- approaches at which women are generally more skilled than men. These win-win negotiations often create better working relationships between parties, making execution easier and contributing to the likelihood of better negotiations in the future.

It is not my intention to argue for or against these conclusions, only to use what is presented to consider what I can do to support people in their own growth and effectiveness. If I take these research findings as true, three questions come forward.

1. Who is responsible for these dynamics?

According to these research findings, social forces (including childhood games, classroom conduct, and family roles) play a major part in the creation of these gender differences. These forces direct and reward women for focusing on others’ needs, rather than their own desires. Social norms that define “appropriate” behavior for women discourage assertive self-interested tactics more commonly used by men in negotiation.

As a man, am I to blame for this? I think not. I do not create social forces- although I certainly have a part in perpetuating them. This may seem obvious, but the responsibility question is important in terms of how willing we are to engage. I believe that all of us- but particularly men- are much more willing to engage in a constructive conversation if we are not being blamed for the existence of the challenge we are addressing.

2.  Who is impacted by this?

The next question that this issue raises for me is who is affected by it. Is this simply something women must manage? No. I am affected by my colleagues’ willingness and ability to negotiate, as well as my client’s negotiation skills. I am affected by the effective negotiation (or lack thereof) of my wife, my sister and mother, and the other women in my personal life. I am impacted by the success and fulfillment enjoyed by my women friends, and by any unhappiness they experience as a result of unpleasant and unproductive negotiations.

This is not “their” issue, it is my issue. As the personal impact of women and negotiation becomes clearer to me, one question jumps forward.

3.  What can I do about it?

I can do my best to promote the type of healthy, productive win-win negotiation that generally suits women’s negotiation style best. Because this type of negotiation creates a positive impact on the parties’ relationship, it is likely to be in my best interest to do that anyway. In doing so, I can make the “women’s style” of negotiation more the norm than the exception. Perhaps if we all did more of this win-win negotiation it would not be referred to as an alternative, “women’s” style.

I can offer support for the women I know as they prepare for important negotiations, whether they be professional or personal. While I do not consider myself to be an expert negotiator, I might be able to provide ideas and suggestions in preparation for negotiation. I could also provide encouragement; if it is true that women back off because they might think that negotiating renders them uncooperative or argumentative, I can remind the women in my life that they are absolutely entitled to go for what they want in their business and personal dealings. I can support them in remembering that.

I could also invite the women in my life to read the new book by Ms. Babcock and Ms. Laschever, entitled Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want. This book is like a how-to manual that offers women (and men as well) strategies and techniques for negotiating. It helps women (and men) recognize opportunities to negotiate, avoid the real or perceived social costs of asking, and ultimately have more of what they want. The four phases of negotiation are discussed, including: preparation (including deciding what we want and don’t want- challenging personal assumptions in the process), research and discovery (to determine what is possible and realistic), pre-negotiation preparation (which involves deciding how high to aim and creating a strategic plan), and the negotiation itself.  This book is a great resource.

Finally, I can continue to look for opportunities to support my clients, colleagues, friends and family as they identify their focus and take steps to realize their goals. And I can remember that we are all striving to be more effective in our professional and personal lives. For some of us, negotiation is challenging. For others, there are other challenges. We all have barriers. Books like these help identify their causes and offer solutions that will help us have more of what we want- whether it needs to be negotiated or not.

1 Comment
  • Jane

    February 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    The three questions you highlighted are interesting, particularly ‘who’s
    responsible for these dynamics’.

    In my years in Human Resources for multinational organizations, I’ve
    witnessed much backlash and plenty of name calling when women ask for
    promotions or salary increases.

    Reflecting on this book, Women and Negotiation, and the Washington Post
    article, “Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling” – there’s
    definitely a social cost for women in negotiations. And, this social cost is
    weighed every time a woman thinks about asking for a promotion.

    In my conversations with women leaders, they often recite stories about men
    asking for promotions and women asking for the next project – and then say,
    “why is that?”

    Based on my experiences in Human Resources, the social cost of asking is
    very real for women. I’ve witnessed too many stories and many more casualties.

    I worked with a powerful advertising executive in London who was asked to
    lead the firm’s business in Asia Pacific. During the negotiation process,
    she brought up very real issues on taxes, pension funds, and basic cost of
    living. When she continued to press for more information, she was labeled –
    aggressive. The firm started questioning her ability to lead a team and her
    loyalty to the organization.

    Watching from the sidelines, it is understandable why women don’t ask. And,
    why they leave organizations.

    I don’t think it starts in schools and I do believe most of this is played
    out inside organizations. In 2008, the New York Times had an interesting
    article on “Girl Power at School, but Not in the Office” by Hannah Seligson.
    Seligson talks about the “egalitarianism of the classroom” but once inside
    corporations everything changes.

    Women growing up in the post feminist era may believe the hallways of
    corporate corridors are lined with opportunity for those that grab them –
    only to find the playing field is not level.

    So, who’s responsible for these dynamics? Old systems, processes and
    thinking on both sides.