What if I suggested that women are instinctually and intuitively better negotiators than men? Would you balk? Reject the idea? At a minimum, I’m sure you’d ask, “So why do women still make less money than men? Why do they ask for less than men? Why do they hesitate in speaking up?” All good questions.
Years ago, the question of male versus female negotiating styles would have seemed moot, if not absurd. Women simply weren’t in the business world in any significant sense, so their negotiation methods seemed an unnecessary consideration. Today, however, women are in boardrooms all across the world and are making constant strides forward on the entrepreneurial landscape. Further, there’s an increased awareness that much in life is a negotiation and those who don’t learn the art lose out. Sadly, women tend to be less likely to learn these fundamental skills, whether for the boardroom, the bedroom, or all the spaces in between. And so I believe that a consideration of women’s negotiating styles, and whether they differ from styles employed by males, is both relevant and critical.
Research has shown that the starting salaries of male graduates are often higher than those of female graduates in the same field. How to explain this? Is it the result of unscrupulous employers deeming female labour to be less valuable than the labour of their male counterparts? That’s a tempting solution, as it simplifies matters and immediately creates a ‘bad guy’ to fight against. The reason, however, is not so simple. What I’m getting at is this: while devaluation of women undoubtedly played some part in the historic and continuing endemic lower salaries for women (and sadly that includes devaluation by both women and men), bargaining effectiveness may also play a significant role in explaining the different starting salaries.

In a study on the subject, men and women were offered comparable initial offers . However, in the aggregate, men made more money. Why? The reason could come down to negotiation practices. Men were found, in close to 60% of cases, to ask for more money when they got job offers. Only about 7% of women asked for more money. How simple is that? Men asked for more and as a result they got more. Well that might go some way toward explaining the difference, but it doesn’t answer the obvious question: why did men feel confident in negotiating their starting salaries while women did not?

Some scholars posit that the reason for this comes down to social expectations, arguing that boys are taught to ask for things, while girls are taught to focus on the needs of others, rather than their own. The social expectation is that men will be bold while women are expected to be modest. Even when women in that rarified 7% do negotiate their initial terms of employment, they don’t get salaries as attractive as the men who negotiate. Again, we have to ask why? Are women negotiating differently, and less effectively?

Well, studies suggest that women negotiate differently and even the women who do negotiate typically ask for less and have lower personal expectations. Some believe that gender differences result from power differences and that women who face social inequalities may unconsciously self-categorize themselves into a lower status when engaging with other people. Naturally, this would be detrimental to negotiation success for women.

When scholar, Linda Babcock, wrote her PhD she delved into the reluctance of women to both negotiate and/or to ask for as much as their male colleagues. Her work found that women are 45% more likely not to think they can change their circumstances and women were less likely to believe they could exercise control over their own circumstances. Think about that for a moment. Think about going into a negotiation already doubting that you can change your circumstance or even exercise control over your own circumstances. Needless to say, this would have profound negative impact on women’s sense of empowerment and their corresponding likelihood to negotiate for more vis-à-vis men who come from a starting point of innate belief that they can control their circumstances.

Scholars attribute the more beneficial results men achieve in bargaining to “negotiator aspiration levels” in the sense that men pursue higher bargaining goals than women. Men are more apt to accept the risk that their expectations may lead to a failure to negotiate a settlement while women tend to be more risk-adverse and to avoid situations where the negotiations may fail. Is it any wonder given the limiting beliefs that plague many women, passed on from generation to generation?

So, yes, it seems that perhaps women and men do negotiate differently, or with different concerns and expectations. These differences could come down to social expectations. Boys are expected to be competitive while girls are supposed to value cooperation and to avoid conflict. It’s worth noting that these expectations are not just imposed by males on females, but rather, many of these expectations are imposed by females on other females. In fact, these expectations appear early in life, with studies showing that girls in kindergarten already socialize each other to be self-effacing, with significant perceived adverse consequences (from the other girls) if they brag or seek status. By contrast, kindergarten boys are rewarded for this behaviour.

So perhaps it is not surprising that research states that women tend to approach negotiation differently than men and that women typically reach less favourable agreements than men. A controlled field study on male and female car buyers, found that women were given higher purchase prices than men and that they ended with higher care prices than men. It seems clear that gender played a role in the expectations of the car salespeople. Social role theory would suggest that beliefs and behaviours are based on what is expected of a person based on traits like gender i.e. the fact that the salespeople expected women to know less about car prices and to be less likely to negotiate impacted on those negotiations to the detriment of the women.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for women on the negotiation front. Social psychologists have argued that for women, bargaining assertively is construed as consistent with female gender roles in some contexts yet inconsistent in other contexts. This expectation of gender roles seems to hold both internally and externally. And so, women adjust their bargaining behaviour to manage social impressions. A key area where we see this is advocacy—whether a woman is bargaining on her own behalf or on another’s behalf. In self-advocacy contexts, women anticipate that being assertive will evoke negative attributions (i.e. she’s a ‘bitch’) and backlash (i.e. exclusion). As a result, women rein in their assertiveness, shy away from competing tactics and obtain lower outcomes. However, when women advocate for someone else, they typically achieve better outcomes as they don’t expect backlash and so don’t hedge.

This shows us that women are not less capable bargainers and are actually able to adjust their bargaining styles depending on the supposed needs of a given situation. This is a great strength that women can use to their advantage in negotiations. Professor Deborah Kolb argues that “the degree to which a negotiator takes up a gendered role and how that role is expressed is likely to be fluid and fragmented.” In other words, negotiators are multifaceted and women can decide which aspect of the many roles we play to bring forward in any given negotiation i.e. as mother, wife/partner, lawyer, daughter, grandmother, etc.

Additionally, according to research, bargaining and negotiation skills stem from emotional intelligence factors, or the ability to have and utilize interpersonal skills (including empathy and intuition). While this is undoubtedly a reasonable conclusion, it leaves the question of why men achieve better negotiation results, given that girls are typically raised to be more focused on inter-personal relationships than boys.

Still further, studies have found women to be more endowed with is a superior ability to read nonverbal cues than men. With studies finding more than 50% of bargaining language to be nonverbal, women should have a definite advantage to their male counterparts.

What does this mean for women? We have the skill set. We’re just reluctant to use it as a result of social conditioning. The good news is that once we bring awareness to the issue, we’re on our way to fixing the problem. In other words, you now have awareness that you do, in fact, possess the necessary skill and ability to negotiate effectively to get what you want and need. The only thing that may have been holding you back is your cultural programming. But since you control your thoughts and behaviour, you hold the key to consciously change the thought processes and limiting beliefs that have unnecessarily held you back. You can choose to use your natural negotiation skills and talents and start to bring them to bear in every negotiation – whether you’re advocating for someone else (where your lioness is already loose) or for yourself (where you need to remind yourself to release your lioness).

Stay tuned for more articles to come, discussing the art of feminine negotiation, why we haven’t been taking advantage of our intuitive talent in this arena, and showing/reminding you how you can tap into your natural gifts to negotiate more effectively – from the boardroom to the bedroom!