Why do women hate negotiating?
Earlier this week, I stood before hundreds of women leading a workshop on negotiating skills. The scene was the Pennsylvania Governor’s conference for women. My job was to give attendees techniques to maneuver through tough bargaining conversations.
Women that attend these sessions tend to be extremely engaged, receptive and curious and this week’s session was no exception. Yet one event unfolded that was particularly unhinging. Assessing where the women were in terms of negotiating experience, I asked, as I often do, who in the room counter-offered their current salary.
About 10 percent of the room raised their hands.
If you’ve never personally observed this, it is uniquely unsettling–but if you conduct your own local experiments you’ll likely see the same result, and not just around salary. In fact women initiate negotiations four times less often than their male counterparts. Women also report “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiation–at a rate 2.5 times more than men, according to the research of Carnegie Mellon’s Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.
One data point from Babcock and Laschever’s research, which appears simple on its face, is even more striking. When asked to pick metaphors that represent the practice of negotiating, women most often selected “going to the dentist” while men more often chose “a ballgame” or “a wrestling match.” This finding demonstrates, in a painfully clear way, that many women equate negotiating to something passive–something that is being done to them–while men see themselves as an active participant in a strategic pursuit.
Despite being quite familiar with such research, in the year 2010, I have to ask how the picture in my workshop could be reality.
After all, it seems women are negotiating, in many day-to-day ways. Whether brokering a deal with her child, getting her family to reach consensus or making trades and concessions around her time, a woman is in bargaining situations all the time.
It’s our decision, or lack of it, to bring these skills into the workplace where some of the issues begin to arise. Our hesitation to ask substantially hurts our earning potential, our access to plum work assignments and our opportunities for promotions. In the larger view, it minimizes our input into decisions that affect us, making our voice a barely audible whisper.
Are our countries’ employment policies outdated and structured in a way that disadvantages women? By and large, yes. Are there still particles of gender discrimination floating around the workplace? A look at the decisions of recent gender discrimination suits shows that’s proven. But while some such forces exist that keep women from reaching parity in pay or the top ranks of business, our own ability to “push back” and negotiate is not one of them.
Perhaps successful women executives are born with the ability to advocate for a cause, direction or point of view窶鰭owever unpopular. Maybe they were lucky enough to learn about negotiating in school. My own research interviewing women executives shows that top women learned these skills with experience. They observed that good work does not guarantee rewards at work. They learned that people that advocate on their own behalf move up, not those who wait to be noticed.
Women that make it to the top also challenge long-standing beliefs in order to get themselves to the negotiating table. They push back on the “good girl”-isms with which they grew up. They didn’t buy into: “Be seen and not heard,” “Always be nice” or “Don’t be too outspoken.” On the contrary, to survive in a top role, they ask for what they want. They’re firm. They don’t accept what’s unacceptable.
Let me be clear, women are not deficient. We possess every intellectual tool needed to negotiate. In some ways, women have even more bargaining chips than men when you consider, for example, that they earn the majority of advanced degrees today.
It’s a different negotiation mindset that can help us get over the hump. As someone that once pictured negotiation negatively (think bloody bullfight), I have come to pare it down to one excruciatingly simple act: a conversation that ends in agreement. Getting clear on why we’re asking, and knowing that we deserve a seat at the table and that our case is worth pursuing can make the difference. Women who negotiate ignite a deep, healthy kind of self respect.
Negotiating isn’t just one of several leadership competencies, it’s the most important tool at women’s disposal. A woman can work on being well networked or technically brilliant, but without the ability to ask she has nothing.
Not asking devastates our promise. Negotiating on our own behalf however gets us far more than a material good. It’s about having a voice, piping up and advocating for ourselves. Those women who choose to strengthen their muscles of self agency can expect a whole new world of possibilities to open. They might even gasp at their strength.