What is negotiation?
Negotiation is a common aspect of work. Employees are increasingly likely to negotiate personalised employment conditions . However, most people think of negotiation only as a discussion for new employees to determine salary, conditions of work and so on. In reality, negotiation is much broader than this, including conversations around promotion, flexible workplace arrangements, training and development opportunities, computer technology and workspace. These discussions range from large one-off resource requests to smaller, everyday needs.
Just about everyone negotiates, whether they realise it or not. However, not everyone is equally successful at negotiating, and this is especially true for women.
Why is it important to be successful in your negotiations?
Negotiation is gendered: outcomes for women are usually different (worse) than for men.
Women experience lower financial security than men, with the gender pay gap significantly contributing to this . Women’s average full-time weekly wages are around 15% less than men’s, and they retire with around half of the superannuation savings of men . Women are clearly disadvantaged financially. But how is this related to negotiation?
If we can improve women’s negotiation success, this gap could be reduced, leading to greater financial parity between women and men. If women are able to negotiate better salaries, for example, the gender pay gap could be eliminated. Similarly, if women can successfully negotiate better working conditions, they may be more likely to stay in the workforce and build adequate retirement funds, reducing superannuation disparities.
But negotiation is also important for organisations and society.
Do women and men have different negotiation experiences?
We often hear that women do not negotiate as effectively as men. And this might be true! But rather than being ineffective negotiators, the real reason is that women anticipate backlash from their requests.
Gender stereotypes are a key factor in understanding negotiation failures. These stereotypes describe how men and women are perceived and how they should (or should not) behave. Research has found that women are generally perceived as communal (caring and interdependent) and men as agentic (ambitious, assertive, decisive and self-reliant) . Negotiation involves agentic behaviours; so, women who negotiate must operate outside prescribed behavioural norms. Women who breach these behavioural norms experience backlash in the form of economic and social penalties .
Employee success is based both on economic resources, such as a good salary package and strong client bases, as well as social resources, such as good working relationships and robust networks. The two are connected: women who seek economic resources through negotiation are seen as being hostile, selfish, devious and quarrelsome , which negatively impacts their social resources . This backlash against women negotiating can even result in women being disliked and colleagues not wanting to work with them, even though they are still considered competent . Negotiating might lead to better economic outcomes for women, but comes at a social cost.
Poor negotiation outcomes may seem insignificant when considering a single instance of negotiation. However, those poor outcomes accumulate over a career, resulting in a large resource gap. This happens from day one, with gender pay gaps across most industries at graduate entry level . This gap builds over time to reach a peak of 15% .
Strategies for improving negotiation outcomes
There is an active debate in the literature. One camp argues that women should “lean in” to succeed by speaking up and asking for what they want . This camp advocates for explicitly changing women’s behaviour, known as the “fix the women” argument. The other camp criticises this approach, arguing that organisations need to make significant changes to level the playing field for negotiations.
We believe there is room for both approaches – if organisations create the right environment for women to be able to successfully negotiate, then women will be able to lean in and ask for what they want.
There is some recent evidence that negotiation behaviour is changing. Younger women are more likely to enter into negotiations compared to their older counterparts, and are negotiating as much as young men . Further, this research shows the negotiation outcomes for younger women are similar to their young male counterparts. This research presents a contradictory point of view to the established literature, but may suggest that norms around women negotiating are changing for the better.
What, then, can individual women do to improve their negotiation skills? Below, we offer some strategies :
Backlash against women negotiating in the workplace can harm ongoing organisational relationships. Women can develop negotiation skills in one-off, low-value transactions, such as negotiating a discount for a damaged item at a shop, to practice their skills in a low-risk situation.
Women can bring objective data, such as a recent salary survey conducted by a professional organisation, to negotiations. Data provides a focus for the negotiation and reduces the need for aggressive bargaining.
Don’t rely exclusively on masculine negotiation styles
Researchers1 have demonstrated that women can achieve better outcomes by redirecting discussions within a negotiation to a problem-solving approach rather than a masculine, competitive style. Negotiation can involve “moves” in which negotiators respond to threats, challenges, or criticisms with equally aggressive and competitive tactics. But negotiation can also involve “turns” in which negotiators deflect competitive tactics by pausing, suggesting a break, asking questions or getting up from the table. “Turns” slow down the negotiation, give negotiators an opportunity to cool off, and encourage negotiators to consider alternative solutions.
Maximise positive stereotype violations
Women can employ a strategy that involves overwhelming their counter-stereotypical behaviour – that is, engaging in competitive actions by negotiating – by emphasising their behaviours which are in line with female stereotypes. For example, during negotiations a woman can show deference by using a ‘powerless’ communication style, or including disclaimer phrases such as ‘I suppose’ and ‘don’t you think’? By behaving in line with the stereotype, the negative effects of engaging in negotiation are ameliorated.
A similar positive stereotype violation is the use of inclusive language. Using words such as “we” or “us” encourages the negotiating partner to engage in the discussion, and acknowledges the relationship. Another method is redirecting threats within negotiations toward problem-solving approaches. Deflecting, taking a break, or getting up from the table breaks the impasse and returns the ball to the negotiating partner’s court. This gives them time to cool down and step back from the threat.
Learn your organisation’s zone of negotiation
It is important for women to be aware of what employment conditions and resources are (and are not) open to negotiation.