A while ago, I was negotiating a job offer. After receiving the initial offer and meeting with the director to feel out what aspects of the offer would be negotiable and what would not, I met with Aneeta (my Career Equally co-founder) to craft a counter- proposal. The counter-proposal felt ridiculous to me – I remember saying to Aneeta, “I can’t ask for all of that!” Fortunately, Aneeta stood over me while I wrote and sent the email. The result? Not even five minutes later I had a reply, accepting every request in my counter-proposal.
This story has a happy ending, but were it not for the skillful coaching of Aneeta, I would have walked away from the negotiation the same way a lot of women do – with less than what they deserve.
In fact, research shows that when women negotiate – particularly when they negotiate for a pay rise or promotion – their outcomes are worse than men’s. One obvious hurdle women face is, of course, gender bias (also see our previous newsletters). There are a variety of stereotypes that can shape negotiations outcomes: the stereotype that women are not competitive, and therefore can be offered less; the stereotype that women are kinder and warmer than men, and therefore will ask for and push back less; stereotypes that women should be grateful for opportunities, which provoke backlash when they deservedly ask for more.
But there is also evidence that women don’t negotiate as well as men. Why not? Some have claimed that there are gender differences – innate or socialized – which mean that women aren’t as competent at negotiating as men. This is entirely false, as a brilliant study demonstrated. In that study they found that when the researchers framed negotiations as needing skills stereotypically attributed to men, such as dominance and aggression, women performed worse than men. But when the researchers told people that stereotypically female characteristics, like attention to emotional signals, were required to be successful at negotiations, they found that women outperformed men! Evidence like this is what definitively puts the nail in the coffin on outdated presumptions about innate gender differences in negotiations ability.
What stops women from asking for more?
Given that there’s nothing inborn about gender differences in negotiations, why do performance differences persist? One answer to that question is the different gender role expectations placed upon women and men in negotiations. Going into a negotiation, both women and men are likely to be focused on their goals and desired outcomes. However, women are also likely to feel pressured to navigate a fine line between being assertive (which good negotiations require) and not coming across as “too strong” (because gender stereotypes demand that women be “nice” and accommodating). Research shows that women often give in to this pressure: when they negotiate for themselves, they worry about the backlash they will encounter if they negotiate aggressively. As a result, they often modify their behavior to be more agreeable and accommodating, meaning they ask for less and walk away from the table with less than a man would in the same negotiation.
Negotiation is seen as a stereotypically masculine domain, so worries about backlash are not the only added concern women might experience. There is a widely held belief that men will perform better than women when they negotiate. Whether or not they endorse this idea personally, women are aware that others may endorse it, and this has a negative impact on them when they negotiate. Anxiety about being judged through the lens of negative gender stereotypes during negotiations imposes a cognitive and emotional load on women, distracting them from the task of negotiating and undermining their performance. Research finds that when the stereotypes are made obvious, women are less likely to succumb to them. It’s when the stereotypes are subtle and “hang in the air” that they appear more likely to disrupt women’s performance.
Fortunately, as subtle and insidious as these depleting effects of gender stereotypes are, the remedies are simple and easy to implement.
1. Negotiate as if you were negotiating for another person. When women imagine themselves negotiating on behalf of a colleague, the gender gap closes. This is because negotiating for others resonates with the gender role prescription that women should care about and focus on others. It may be difficult to hold yourself to this idea, so we recommend recruiting a friend to act as your partner in a negotiation process, just as I did with Aneeta. Use them as a sounding board and an accountability partner – discuss your offer and counteroffer with them to ensure you don’t sell yourself short.
2. “Lean in” to useful stereotypes. We highlighted that women don’t perform well in negotiations when stereotypes about women’s lack of ability, relative to men, play on their mind. However, there is another set of stereotypes that favour women in negotiations. A successful negotiator needs to have strong interpersonal skills and be sensitive to relational dynamics – these skills are stereotypically assigned to women, not men. As we noted above, when the necessity of these skills in negotiations is highlighted to women, they tend to outperform men in negotiations! It is worth reminding yourself that.
3. Acknowledge the threat. Awareness of negative stereotypes about women negotiators can disrupt their performance, but as we explained above this often goes away once women are aware of the stereotypes. This is because when we are thinking about the stereotypes, we can both debunk them and we can easily use strategies 1 and 2 to overcome them.
4. Stop negotiating against yourself. In our experience, women often know exactly what they want to ask for and why they deserve it. Then, that little voice in their heads gets in the way, telling them not to ask for too much, that they don’t want to be seen as greedy or egotistical, or that maybe some of the aspects they want to ask about aren’t negotiable. Any time you stop yourself before asking, you are negotiating against yourself. The cardinal rule of negotiations is to ask – all they can do is say no, and then you are in the same position as you were before. So, next time that voice gets going in your head, stop negotiating against yourself and just ask.
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