In an ideal world, there would be no gender bias – men and women could sit down at the negotiation table, armed with all the trademark tools of a good negotiator, and achieve equitable outcomes for all parties involved. In reality, however, the negotiation skills that men often take for granted don’t always work as favorably for women.
Stereotypes have a lot to answer for when it comes to how successful women are at negotiation, and new research shows that there’s more at play than simply the traditionally held view that women lack ambition or assertiveness to succeed at the negotiation table.
So just what does affect the success of women’s negotiation skills, and how can we introduce negotiation training to make positive changes and level the playing field?
Negotiation is present throughout our lives, both professionally and personally – whether you’re negotiating for a better salary and job benefits, or agreeing with your family about where your next vacation will be. Typically, we enter negotiations fully prepared with an idea of our ideal outcome, the conditions that we’re willing to be flexible about, and an understanding of the rules of engagement.
For women, there’s an added layer of complexity that can make negotiation more challenging than for their male counterparts – the need to first break through the gender biases that can significantly hinder their negotiated outcomes.
Sometimes called the “tameness narrative”, there’s a common misconception that women are less assertive than men and that they lack the ambition or confidence to ask for the things that they want. This general view of women at the negotiation table can lead to people (male and female) viewing a female negotiator as less competent than a male negotiator.
It can be a double-edged sword for women, who train in the skills they need to achieve successful negotiation outcomes. Women who do exhibit more assertive behaviors risk facing backlash from their colleagues and counterparts, as there remains a societal perception that women should not be aggressive.
Negotiation skills for women, therefore, need to carefully blend tried and tested negotiation tools with a strategy that helps women to both overcome gender bias and use it to their advantage.
Training women in negotiation starts with addressing the “tameness narrative”. Equipping women with the basic tools to succeed in negotiation is fundamental to women achieving the desired outcomes.
This means showing women that negotiation plays an important role in their professional and personal lives, and isn’t something to shy away from. Often, women are less likely to negotiate on their own behalf and many avoid the confrontational situations that can be associated with negotiation.
Providing women with the ideas, skills and structure they need to succeed means that they’ll have more control and confidence when they approach negotiation.
When it comes to addressing the concerns of “backlash” against women who apply these behaviors, there needs to be a positive cultural shift. In part, training can be offered to women to understand where these views may come from, and how to use them to their advantage, such as identifying when their own goal may benefit the wider organization. However, broader diversity training is needed in organizations to bring about a broader understanding of the challenges faced by women, as well as instill the appropriate values.
To succeed in negotiation, there are essential skills that both women and men need to develop, including understanding what motivates the other party, flexibility, and knowing what your desired outcome is.
As well as building a foundation of negotiation skills and how to apply them, women also need to understand their own behaviors and how they might undermine their own success.
When approaching any negotiation, you need to know how the other party operates – what are their rules? This may well include gender bias, especially if you work in a traditionally male-dominated industry. By understanding how the other party operates, you’re able to develop a strategy to direct the outcome.
Whether negotiating for improved job benefits for yourself or a sales deal on behalf of your company, it’s important to be clear about what you want. Women may have a tendency to compromise on their bottom line in order to appear more flexible or likeable, so it’s important for women to realize that you don’t need to compromise on your non-negotiables.
Another common tactic in negotiation is to identify the elements that you’re prepared to be more relaxed about. Strong negotiators know that “giving an inch” in a negotiation can help them to appear more accommodating and people are more inclined to make return concessions. While it’s an important point, training for women needs to distinguish where the line is between being accommodating and appearing less assertive.
When it comes to negotiation skills for women, not only do women benefit from developing essential negotiation skills but also from learning strategies that work for them. To manage the inherent backlash that women face if they act as aggressively or assertively as their male counterparts, women can also benefit from learning tactics that play to the gender bias, such as learning to combine a degree of softness, friendly gestures and non-threatening behavior to deliver the assertive messages that they need to.
Foundation negotiation courses can help men and women to understand the basics of negotiation, and develop the skills they need to succeed, whatever stage they’re at in their careers.
Courses such as Scotwork’s Negotiation Foundation Workshop provide a clear introduction to the essential stages of the negotiation process and provide practical tools that can be applied by anyone.
Mentoring programs can be an excellent two-way learning opportunity that can support women in developing effective negotiation skills. By pairing a female negotiator up with an internal coach, there’s an opportunity for the mentee to gain exposure to real-life negotiation situations that they may not have come across yet, as well as for the mentor to understand the challenges faced by women every day.
While it’s unfair to place the burden of overcoming female stereotypes solely on the shoulders of women, it can be helpful for women to understand the behaviors that feed into gender bias.
Some women avoid negotiations, either believing that they don’t have the right to sit at the negotiation table or to avoid the confrontation and table thumping that they associate with negotiation. In line with the negative connotations linked with women who behave more assertively or are viewed as aggressive compared to their peers, some women opt to maintain the “nice girl” persona, which can lead to them being less clear about what they want. It’s a perpetual cycle that feeds the idea that women are less capable in the negotiation room – a woman avoids saying precisely what she means, so she’s viewed as lacking clarity or competency, and she reacts to the pushback with increasingly softer and unclear language.
Women's negotiation training needs to focus on helping women to understand the benefits of negotiation as well as striking the balance between achieving their desired outcomes and being their authentic selves.
At Scotwork, we’ve analyzed thousands of hours of negotiation, revealed common behaviors of male and female negotiators, and aimed to transform the way the world negotiates. We offer a range of negotiation skills training programs, including foundation and advanced negotiation skills, as well as tailored solutions to suit your business needs.
There’s no doubt that women negotiators can face additional challenges to achieve successful negotiation outcomes, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. Research shows that a tendency for women to avoid being overly aggressive can be exasperated by both real and perceived negative reactions towards women who apply the same assertive negotiation techniques as men.
The first step towards leveling the playing field is through better negotiation skills training for women but needs to be supported by improved organizational culture, which can be achieved through diversity training, instilling the right values, and bringing in coaching programs. It’s not just an issue for women to overcome alone.