Advice for Women Negotiators

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

WomenNegotiatorsConcept description

The Harvard Program on Negotiation has produced a Special Report (reference below) that includes advice for women negotiators.

Background – why women don’t ask

Adapted in the Special Report from “First You Have to Ask,” by Linda Babcock (professor, Carnegie Mellon University) and Sara Laschever (writer and editor), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, January 2004.

“Think back to the hiring process that led you to your current position. Maybe you had just received your MBA and met with a number of different companies before choosing the job you thought was right for you. Or maybe you were moving up in your company or switching to a new profession entirely. After a tough round of interviews, you were excited to be offered the job – but were you happy with the terms? Did you negotiate your salary or accept the first offer on the table? Since then, have you had any doubts about the way you did – or didn’t – bargain?

“Your answers to these questions probably reveal a lot about you, including one key thing: your gender. If you’re a man, chances are that you haggled over your salary offer. If you’re a woman, it’s more likely that you agreed to the first offer on the table – and got off to a much slower financial start than most men.

“In research with Michele Gelfand, Deborah Small, and Heidi Stayn, we’ve sought to identify unrecognized gender differences in the workplace by looking at the degree to which men and women initiate negotiations. What we found startled us. In several very different studies, the results were the same: men were significantly more likely to negotiate than women. In one study, men negotiated twice as often as women; in another, men negotiated nine times more frequently. Ruling out differences in age, education level, and work experience, we came to a firm conclusion: men use negotiation to promote their own interests far more often than women do. This finding has serious implications not only for individuals, but for the organizations that employ them. Left unchecked, gender disparities in negotiation quickly transform into clear pay and promotion inequalities and costly employee turnover. All managers, male and female, can benefit from addressing this deep-rooted workplace problem.”

“… Beginning in early childhood, girls are taught to be “communal,” to make relationships a priority, and to focus on the needs of others and think less about their own needs. These lessons are conveyed by the chores they’re assigned (such as looking after younger siblings), by the toys they’re given (baby dolls and play kitchens), by the books they read and the television shows they watch, and by the behavior of older children and adults.

“This early socialization can be so powerful that many women reach adulthood unaware that they’ve internalized these lessons. Focusing on the needs of others, they think less about their own needs and wants. As a result, they often fail to recognize opportunities to improve their job enjoyment and status through negotiation.

“The primacy of community in women’s lives also leads them to worry about the impact negotiations may have on their relationships. Many women fear that a disagreement about the substance of a negotiation – who will get and give up what – represents real conflict between the negotiators. Trained to placate rather than antagonize, to give rather than to get, and to prize interpersonal peace over personal gain, women often experience more anxiety about negotiating than men do. This anxiety can deter them from asking for what they want even when they do know what that is.

“Our interviews with dozens of women also confirmed that women who come across as “too aggressive” in the workplace frequently end up disliked and ostracized – and unable to get what they want anyway. All these social factors deter women from initiating negotiations.”

Negotiating the gender backlash

Adapted from “What Happens When Women Don’t Ask,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, June 2008.

“A series of experiments shows that women face a significant backlash when they assert themselves in negotiations. Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University), Hannah Riley Bowles (Harvard Kennedy School) and Lei Lai (Carnegie Mellon University) had male and female participants imagine that they were senior managers evaluating an internal candidate for a position within their firms. Next, participants watched videotaped interviews of pairs of actors carrying out the job negotiation.

“In evaluations of the candidates, both male and female participants (whose average age was 29) were significantly less willing to work with a female candidate who attempted to negotiate her salary than with a female candidate who did not try to negotiate salary. Female participants also penalized male negotiators who asked for more money, but male evaluators did not. Participants of both sexes viewed women who asked for more to be less nice and more demanding than women who didn’t ask.

“The stark truth: Women who asked for more money were disliked – and penalized accordingly. Women’s reluctance to negotiate may actually be a reasonable choice in such instances.

“Having achieved significant gains in the workplace, women now face a double bind. To advance and succeed, they need to advocate for their interests – yet when they do so, they may be punished for being unfeminine.”

Advice for women negotiators

“How can women ask for what they need without triggering a backlash? Here are three pieces of advice:

  1. Collaborate to be liked. In the Negotiation newsletter, we stress the importance of using collaborative techniques to get what you want. When you explore the other side’s interests, engage in joint problem solving, and use influence strategies rather than coercion and demands, you’ll be in a better position not only to create value for both sides but also to claim greater value for yourself. Although a collaborative approach obviously benefits all negotiators, it may be crucial for women. Why? Because women need to make an extra effort to be liked during negotiation, write Babcock and her colleague Sara Laschever, or risk a backlash. That doesn’t mean pasting on a permanent smile when asking for a higher salary. Rather, it means expressing appreciation for the other side’s perspective, supporting arguments with objective criteria, and framing comments in positive terms – “I’m ready for a new challenge” rather than “I’m really tired of my job.”
  2. Connect your goals to the organization’s. Despite research showing that many women are reluctant to ask for what they need, evidence also suggests that women who do negotiate are likely to thrive. That’s the conclusion Deborah Kolb of Simmons University and Jill Kickul of New York University drew from a 2005 survey of 470 professional women attending a leadership conference. These women recognized the value of negotiation as a tool for career success; 53% of them showed a strong proclivity to negotiate. Attesting to the power of negotiation, this group was consistently more satisfied with their jobs than those who asked less regularly for what they needed (74% versus 26%). How did these women negotiate effectively for their success without triggering a backlash? By identifying pressing concerns within their groups, they were able to lobby for resources and responsibilities. These “small wins” in turn attracted positive attention. Connecting their individual interests to the good of their organizations helped these leaders avoid appearing aggressive and established a formula for success.
  3. Navigate the shadow negotiation. Suppose that a manager named Gwen makes a case for a significant raise following a year of excellent performance. To her surprise, her usually supportive boss responds by downplaying her achievements: “That request is way out of line with what I’ve seen from you.” Gwen is tempted to back down, though she knows a male colleague was recently awarded a hefty raise for meeting similar targets. When you negotiate issues that challenge people’s deeply seated beliefs about gender, they may respond with moves that question your credibility and competence, according to Kolb. In their book Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining (Jossey-Bass, 2003), Kolb and Judith Williams write that such moves are part of a “shadow negotiation” that goes deeper than the issues at stake. Your shadow negotiation with someone encompasses how you treat each other, who gets heard, and how cooperative and open you are. Women can counter demeaning, critical, and threatening moves by turning the conversation in a more productive direction. Rather than backing down or becoming defensive, Gwen might ask her boss about his reasoning: “Can you explain why you feel that way?” She could also reference data showing the cost savings she has achieved. When you recognize a move as a power tactic, you gain the ability to respond strategically and effectively.”

Program On Negotiation, Harvard Law School, Special Report, Training Women to Be Leaders – Negotiating Skills for Success, free download available at, accessed 24 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Negotiating (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 25 March 2016.

Image: Katie Shonk, Program On Negotiation, Harvard Law School, Daily Blog, at, accessed 24 March 2016.