In 2012, LinkedIn surveyed more than 2,000 professionals from eight countries on the topic of negotiation. The survey revealed that Americans were more likely to be anxious about negotiating than professionals from other countries. And among the Americans responding, far fewer women reported feeling confident about negotiation than men.
Early research about how gender affects negotiations was often inconclusive or contradictory. But in recent years, at least two general conclusions have emerged. On the one hand, women negotiating on behalf of others do as well and sometimes better than men. On the other, women do not do nearly as well as men when negotiating for themselves.
What follows are patterns of behavior among large numbers of women and men. Individual men and women may not exhibit the general tendencies of the larger populations studied. Indeed, some men and women who attend negotiation workshops do express comfort and success with negotiation, but they typically can identify a parent, supervisor, colleague or other significant adult who already has taught them some effective negotiation techniques.
Why should we care about women’s unique challenges when negotiating on behalf of themselves? Because a part of what may appear to be institutional or individual bias may be explained by women’s own approach to negotiation. This is not to say that bias does not exist. But if women understand what they can change and control, they are more likely to experience confidence and success in their own negotiations.
Women miss or avoid opportunities to negotiate more often than men.
Most research looking at gender differences in negotiation tends to focus on salary or other types of workplace negotiations. In one classic study of business school graduates, women negotiated their salary only 7% of the time, while men negotiated 57% of the time. Women often were grateful for whatever they received, and did not feel they could or should attempt to negotiate more for their first or even subsequent jobs. Men, in contrast, often saw each position as a new opportunity to negotiate.
Other studies reveal a similar pattern outside the workplace, with men initiating negotiations far more often than women in all sorts of situations. Indeed, men describe negotiation in terms such as, “winning a ballgame,” “exciting” and “fun,” while women used terms such as “scary” and “going to the dentist.” It is not surprising that women may not be looking for opportunities to negotiate.
When they do negotiate, women don’t ask for as much as men.
Research suggests that women may be more comfortable than men with their existing circumstances, and are less motivated than men to ask for more when the opportunity arises. Several scholars link this to lower expectations among women as to what is possible. In general, we adjust our expectations to what our peers have attained. But it turns out that women are more likely to compare their salaries, positions, and “success” against other women as opposed to men and women collectively.
Women also tend to exhibit greater discomfort in asking for more than others may have. In one survey, when asked if they were entitled to a salary higher than that offered to others, 70% of the men agreed as opposed to only 30% of the women. A subsequent study revealed that these perceptions spanned generations. The gender differences in perceived entitlement were as great for professionals in their twenties and thirties as for older respondents.
Women who do ask may be “punished” in some way.
Many women report not negotiating for a higher salary or asking for more than they do because they fear risking their employment relationships. Sadly, they may be right. Research confirms that women’s success at work depends far more on their “likability” than men’s. Women who assert themselves and their own interests are viewed as much less likable by both men and women. And women who “boast,” for example, by pointing out their contributions or successes, damage their likability even more. As a result, women find themselves in a genuine bind: asking for more and explaining why they deserve it can backfire. Yet if a woman behaves in a more modest and “feminine-appropriate way,” research indicates that people will view her as less capable or suitable for management.
The good news: Women are as good as men, and sometimes better, at negotiating on behalf of others.
Some believe this is due, in part, to modern society’s comfort with seeing a woman in a protective or “other-oriented” role. Much like a “mama bear” is revered for her fierceness in protecting her young, a woman can get away with being far more assertive on behalf of others than for herself. Women also say they feel more comfortable negotiating for others, probably because they do not experience as much of a conflict with societal norms.
More good news: You can improve your negotiation skill, confidence, and outcomes.
Embedded in the analysis of what holds women back in their own negotiations are clues as to how they can move forward.
Tip 1: Take a workshop to learn effective negotiation techniques
One of the reasons women don’t see opportunities for negotiation is that they simply aren’t looking for them. Why? Because they don’t really want to negotiate for themselves. But those who teach negotiation workshops agree that once someone starts to learn and practice negotiation techniques in a relatively safe setting, they start to see opportunities to negotiate all around them.
Tip 2: Try asking for something in settings in which you think negotiation is impossible
Women often view their own circumstances as fixed or non-negotiable, while men are less likely to assume a given situation is non-negotiable. An exercise you can try on your own is to ask for something in any setting on a given day. When booking a hotel room, ask “Is that the best rate you can offer me?” In a store, when you see a slight defect in an item, ask if a “manager’s discount” is possible. Note your level of comfort or discomfort in asking and force yourself to move beyond your discomfort until you secure a win. The moment you actually get something for asking when you otherwise would not have asked can be almost exhilarating. And the more you keep asking in different settings, the more comfortable you will become. Even if most of the responses are a “no.”
Tip 3: Set higher goals for yourself in negotiation
This may sound easier said than done, but you can do this in a number of ways. You can, for example, consciously choose to examine how you are defining your “peers” or the standard that seems “fair” to you. Are you looking only at women who have held the position to tell you how much you should ask in salary? Are you consciously or unconsciously failing to account for the salaries made by men? Make a conscious decision to research standards that apply to both men and women in the positions you are seeking. And if there are no women where you are heading, buck up and anchor yourself as high as the men who are there.
Assistant Professor Stephanie Bell at Pepperdine’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution describes another technique to her students. Before negotiating a salary (or salary increase), identify the number you want, say, $100,000. Then take a small piece of paper and add five or ten thousand dollars (or any increment you like) and write that new number on the piece of paper. Walk around with that new number in your pocket for, say, a week, and you may find yourself starting to believe you actually merit that higher number as your new salary.
After achieving this comfort level, take another small piece of paper and add another five or ten thousand dollars, writing a new total number on the paper. Place that new piece of paper in your pocket. Depending on how much time you have, you may be able to ratchet up your expectations substantially before you enter your negotiation and make your first ask. Higher aspirations yield higher results.
Tip 4: Frame your request in terms of “we” and not “I,” and in positive rather than negative terms
The likability barrier women face in negotiation is real. One way to preserve your likability while still pressing for more in negotiation is to frame your request as one that reflects your commitment to the other party or to the enterprise as a whole:
“I’d like to offer as much as I can to this firm, and to do that, I need…”
“I’ve been thinking of ways I can offer additional value and…”
Some women might balk at playing into social norms of likability by softening their approach in this way. Not every approach will work for everyone. But for those women who do care about preserving their “likability,” this sort of framing may make it easier to ask for more.
Tip 5: Support other women in their negotiations
Coach your colleagues, your bosses, your direct reports. Help them think through and plan for their negotiations. Walk them through the possible barriers they are setting up for themselves in an upcoming negotiation. Help them identify and implement strategies.
Although there is no substitute for personal practice and experience, helping others prepare and work through their negotiations will help you hone your own skills as well.
About the Author
Denise R. Madigan has been a full-time commercial mediator with a national practice for over 25 years. Based in Los Angeles at MadiganADR, she also teaches negotiation and mediation through Pepperdine Law School’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.