Natalia Karelaia, Associate Professor of Decision Sciences demystifies gender differences in negotiations
Do gender differences make a difference at the negotiations table? Research suggests that, in many cases, they do.
Studies show that women don’t recognise as many negotiation opportunities as men do. There’s also evidence that women may face social backlash if they don’t follow culturally ingrained ideas about appropriate gendered behaviour, such as when they appear to be “too assertive” or “not nice enough.”
This has several implications for women as professionals. As my own research shows, such perceptions may reduce the influence women can exert in their organisations. Social backlash may also affect women’s careers by causing them to miss out on desirable work assignments and support from mentors if people are disinclined to work with them.
However, these challenges can be managed. Based on new research about gender differences in negotiations, here are some insights that can help women leaders make better decisions, be more influential, and realise better outcomes in negotiations.
Understand the context of the situation
First, it’s important to understand that gender differences in negotiations are highly context-dependent. The more a negotiation situation appears to be congruent with stereotypically female occupations or roles, the smaller the gender difference in outcomes. In fact, the difference may even reverse. For instance, consider someone negotiating the price of heavy machinery for a factory versus negotiating the extension of a nursing team in a hospital.
Negotiators, both men and women, tend to have worse outcomes when they perceive the situation to be incongruent with their gender stereotypes. This includes men as assertive, competitive breadwinners and women as nurturing, selfless caretakers.
Perceived person-situation incongruence increases psychological distress, which may reduce one’s performance in the negotiation or lead one to opt out of the negotiation altogether.
Reframe the situation
The good news is that if we can change our view on negotiations, we can potentially change our negotiation behaviour and outcomes. It’s all a matter of perception and framing.
As women, we can view any situation as more or less congruent with the female gender role stereotype. Even if I negotiate the purchase of heavy machinery, I can think of this task as a communal one that will improve the wellbeing of others in my organisation.
Imagine you're negotiating for someone else
Research shows that when we negotiate on behalf of another person versus ourselves, the gender differences are either eliminated or even reversed, both in terms of negotiation outcome and the decision to negotiate.
To give yourself more courage to ask for what is fair, imagine you’re negotiating on behalf of someone else—your future self, family, kids, parents or close friends. In negotiations where you actually represent someone else (an individual, a department or an organisation), it may pay off to convey to the other side the idea that you’re taking care of others’ interests, as opposed to being assertive only to benefit yourself.
Turn negotiation into collaboration
Most crucial to our negotiation performance is whether we think of negotiations as a battle, a competition or a collaborative opportunity. While the collaborative approach to negotiations is more consistent with the behaviour gender stereotypes prescribe to women, it has been shown to also be more effective and less risky—for both women and men—than a more adversarial and competitive approach.
Practitioners agree that the business world is evolving, and most consider the adversarial approach to negotiations rather outdated and ineffective.
To turn negotiation into collaboration:
- Don’t assume negotiations are a zero-sum battle with one winner and one loser. Be open-minded and proactively shape how the other side views the negotiation.
- Understand the underlying motivations, concerns and needs of all parties.
- Ask many questions – and then listen.
- Transparently lead the process toward value creation and satisfaction of interests in a way that leaves all parties feeling pleased with the process and eager to implement the negotiated agreement.
- Treat the other side fairly and with respect, while never losing sight of your own interests.
- Know what you want (your underlying interests), but be flexible on how you get there (multiple ways of satisfying your interests).
- Remember your “plan B” and don’t hesitate to walk away if what they have on the table at the end of the negotiation is worse. But do it graciously and leave the door open.
Research in both sociology and psychology shows that by signalling that they are motivated to consider others’ interests, women can increase their influence and escape the negative social reaction that female negotiators face when they are perceived as purely self-interested. Indeed, gender differences in negotiation behaviour and outcomes tend to disappear in negotiations framed as collaborative problem-solving exercises, as opposed to competitions.
View the negotiation from multiple angle
A common mistake both men and women make is to restrict the scope of their negotiations to a single dimension, such as price or salary. Doing so limits the opportunities to avoid the most classic trap of a zero-sum, win-lose negotiation and to improve the value of the deal for everybody.
With preparation and thought, any negotiation can be transformed into a collaborative conversation over multiple dimensions. For example, when negotiating a compensation package, consider discussing various dimensions such as salary, responsibilities, amount of travel, career path, etc. This increases the potential for improving the terms of the agreement for all parties and shifting the negotiation from a competitive frame to a more effective collaborative one.
Plan, research and prepare
Preparation is crucial for giving you confidence and ensuring the success of your negotiations. It also helps reduce gender differences that result from ambiguity. Women tend to be more hesitant than men to negotiate in unstructured negotiations, when the limits of the negotiation are unclear. You can reduce ambiguity regarding upcoming negotiations by gathering information on similar past negotiations.
Determine what you truly want, analyse the situation from the perspective of the other side, and prepare creative, mutually satisfactory solutions to the problem at hand. Plan your communication strategy, such as opening statement, questions to ask and information to be revealed. Prepare a plan B as well. Research objective criteria to determine the parameters and components of the agreement, such as industry standards and precedents.
Plan your communication to guard against backlash
To overcome the social backlash women may face when it comes to negotiating on their own behalf, such as negotiating for higher pay, research suggests employing communication strategies that use “relational accounts” to justify requests. Such strategies explain the legitimacy of requests in terms that reinforce concern for relationships in the organisation and tend to improve both negotiated and social outcomes for women.
Signalling that one is a team player and cares about the broader organisation fulfils the feminine stereotype of communal behaviour, and hence eliminates the backlash. Framing one’s propensity to negotiate as an asset one brings to work is one idea. Another effective strategy is to redirect responsibility for culturally questionable behaviour, such as advocating for yourself, away from the female negotiator to another person or situational factor by saying, for instance, “My team leader/mentor/coach told me to ask.”
Approach the negotiation as an opportunity to learn
Negotiations don’t need to be a battle. Take them as an opportunity to learn more about your counterparts and yourself and to uncover ways to improve the situation for all involved. It can improve working relationships even if there is no deal at the end of your negotiation.
The most common mistake women – and many men – make in negotiations is thinking they’re not good at it. We all have the potential to be great negotiators. All it takes is curiosity, preparation, a positive mind-set, and just a little bit of courage.