Women Negotiating in the New Millenium

by Martha Lagace

Do women negotiate differently from men?

If yes, how much of a difference is there?

For a long time, according to Hannah Riley, a doctoral candidate at HBS who has studied the subject, the answer was "'not much.'"

Riley, along with HBS Professor Kathleen Valley of the Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Group and Deborah Kolb, a professor at the Simmons College Graduate School of Management, discussed the topic at the Women Enriching Business panel "Women Negotiating in the New Millenium."

"The research in controlled lab experiments didn't show much in terms of difference in men and women," said Riley, who has worked on the Harvard Law School-based Program on Negotiation. "We were slightly more cooperative, and men slightly more competitive."

One more recent negotiation study, though, began to reveal a different story. In a survey where there was potential to "expand the pie," Riley said, "what we found is that men were better at claiming the pie. On the other hand, woman-woman dyads were the best at expanding the pie."

"These results were disappointing."

Another study focused on women in MBA classrooms. "Women weren't doing something different," Riley said, "but were expecting something different, and therefore were going away with worse results."

She suggested that women have different goals in negotiation, and are maybe more attuned to one-on-one interpersonal relationships while men are more interested in group identity. "Women hold back on what they want to claim," she said, adding that, "this may be a more functional strategy for women. Strong personal relationships may be more important to women's career success than to men.

"On the less happy side, it's possible that women have the expectation that men are better" at negotiation.

Simmons College's Kolb, an authority on gender issues, asserted that people need to take another look at the routine interactions they have in their organization.

"Often we as women are the harbingers of change," she said. "Now because of the changing workforce, we're challenging basic assumptions."

To demonstrate the skills necessary for negotiation, Kolb presented a hypothetical situation (Jane's Dilemma), in which a female partner of a firm is offered a challenging assignment, on one hand, while being told by her boss, "I'm taking a risk on you," with the implication that she needs more experience to capably handle it.

(See Jane's Dilemma below for more).

"People put you in that gendered position," Kolb said, "and to negotiate you have to turn it, and anticipate those questions."

Equally important is the need to recognize opportunities for negotiation. Women take tough assignments, she said, but undermine themselves by not negotiating to make the new workload successful in terms of time and support.

"We have a broader set of goals," allowed Valley. "We're making choices that are much more multifaceted, and we think about negotiation in a much more complex way than some men. In that sense we're really expert negotiators."

Asked by a member of the audience about how to maintain enough self-confidence to focus on those goals, Riley replied, "I just wish these women would set higher goals, and tell themselves, 'There's a chance I'm not asking for enough.'... A bit of buoyed optimism pays off."

Valley suggested getting more experience through an activity she's had students do in her class: Try to negotiate for something that is non-negotiable. "You have to start practicing where someone can say 'no' in a low-risk situation.

"Negotiation here is not 'practice,' but practice in the sense of knowing how to re-collect yourself when someone says no."

So what is the secret to changing the apparent fact that women want less?

"We're only measuring part of the equation," Riley pointed out. "Maybe women were optimizing for more than what they achieved in the pie. We're maybe setting our reference points differently than men do, and maybe socialization leads us to accept less for ourselves than for others."

"You have to be who you are, your authentic self," advised Kolb. Learn to read different situations. "Not all situations in an organization will be the same. There are lots of ways to get what you want that don't boil down to 'Am I going to be nice?' We have enormous skills in collaboration.

"And what are you trying to do? Read the contents that lead to different choices."

Jane's Dilemma

With "Jane's Dilemma," the audience at the negotiation panel had a chance to work together in pairs to try to come up with a creative solution to one woman's problem. Afterward, panelist Deborah Kolb discussed some possible alternatives with the group.

In the "dilemma," Jane is a partner in a mid-sized accounting firm. She believes, as do others in the company, that she has leadership potential. She would like more opportunities for "rainmaking" and taking on more challenging assignments.

Her boss has just offered her a "development opportunity": the firm had just settled a sexual harassment suit, but the boss thought there might be more in the wings. Therefore, he wanted Jane, as a partner and a trusted, capable person in the firm, to oversee the company's management process surrounding this issue.

Jane's dilemma is this: Should she take on the responsibility? How does it coincide, or not, with her own ambitions? Can she decline and not lose face as a "team player"? It seems like a double bind: if she says no, she's not a team player; if she says yes, she's that much further from her goals.

Some solutions and perspectives of the audience were these:

  1. Jane should decline. It is a heavy responsibility that will bring her little if any recognition in the company.
  2. Jane should accept. The new responsibility could become an opportunity - after Jane restructures it, that is, by making it clear that she deserves a shot in the future on more high-profile, "rainmaker" assignments, and will receive the necessary mentoring.
  3. Jane should accept. But she should not lose sight of her own goals. She could suggest to her boss, "Would it be better to have a high-profile male partner on this assignment?" because that would send a stronger signal to the company and public that the firm took the issue of sexual harassment seriously.

Kolb then let the group know that "Jane's Dilemma" was inspired by a real situation that had happened to an executive at a major consulting firm. The woman had been offered responsibility on the company's Women's Initiative, but managed to turn around what may have seemed like a thankless task into something that was positive for her, the company, and the Women's Initiative. She found ways, said Kolb, to make it count for the firm in the way that rainmaking counted for the firm.

"She negotiated in terms of her goals," Kolb said, "but also in terms of how the company could measure progress. This became a career enhancing opportunity for her, and a successful marketing opportunity for [the company]."

The case, Jane's Dilemma, used by Deborah Kolb at the conference, was written by Joyce K. Fletcher, Simmons Graduate School of Management/Center for Gender in Organizations in 1999.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.