Negotiating as a Woman in a Man’s World

I’ve been on a mission for some time to bust the myth that it’s ‘a man’s world’. The thought process is that if we continue to buy into this idea, we will perpetuate the patriarchal structure and continue to condition women to believe they’re likely to get less in life. Since we create our own realities by the thoughts we choose and the meaning we attach to those thoughts, it struck me as dangerous to allow ourselves, as women, to believe the world is not ours. Law of attraction is a powerful thing. If you believe that even though you make up over 50% of the population, somehow the world belongs to the ‘other half’, you will almost certainly expect less and get less in life. 

Recently, I interviewed a woman who was no stranger to the topic. Pam Lester was one of the first women attorneys in pro sports, the first woman president of the Sports Lawyer Association, the first woman chair of the American Bar Association Forum on the entertainment, arts and sports industries, and the first woman chair of the sports division of the ABA Forum Entertainment, Arts & Sports Industries. In her career, she specialized in licensing and endorsement deals for athletes on everything from tennis, to golf, to soccer to boxing and Olympic athletes. She also created plans for HBO properties, including launching the licensing for the inimitable series, The Sopranos and genre changing series, Sex in the City. I thought it might be worthwhile to share her perspectives here.

Gender Bias & Women as Commodities 

Like many of us in male-dominated industries, Pam was typically the only woman in the room. Women were often seen as commodities who would come and go. In fact, Pam shares a story that one woman who worked in the office was fired and the managing director called everyone in the office by that name after that – as if we were somehow all interchangeable. There were no mentors. This wasn’t just an issue based on gender. As Pam points out, whether it’s based on gender, weight, race, sexual orientation, national origin or otherwise, there will always be people who will be biased against us. Her strategy was to just register the information as relevant data.

The Upside to Being Underestimated

In fact, Pam argues that being underestimated can in fact be a great strength. When someone underestimates you, they let their guard down, they think they have something over you. You can use that to your advantage … so long as you hold your own value and don’t underestimate yourself. If you’re intentional about how you show up, you can bring rapport-building and empathy to the table to get more information and use it to your benefit in your negotiations, coming away with better results.

Pam shared a story about one case where she was negotiating a high-stakes deal and when the lawyer from the other firm came in to the boardroom he asked her to get him a cup of coffee. Being polite, Pam said “Would you like milk and sugar?” When she then sat down on the other side of the table to start the negotiation (after having brought his coffee), he was so disarmed that she was able to use that to her advantage and come to an advantageous settlement.

On Speaking Out

Pam speaks to regrets about not speaking out, but notes that women didn’t feel they could speak out in that setting. Heck, she acknowledges that she was careful not to join women’s organizations because it may be held against her. Luckily, that climate is changing and this issue is getting long overdue air time. Women are finding ways to speak up and be taken seriously without buying in to the competitive, dish-it-back modus operandi. I find it can often be helpful to appeal to someone’s higher nature. Invite them to step into the best version of themselves. You could say something like, “I know it’s important to you to treat everyone with dignity and respect. And I know it’s important to you to ensure everyone’s voice is heard on this priority project …”. That approach (versus calling them out as a sexist or misogynist) can be very effective in making someone re-evaluate their approach in a way that allows them to save face and build a better relationship. It can be effective even, and especially, when someone is not actually showing up in the way you describe. You invite them to breathe into a better way of showing up.

How to Overcome Overwhelm & Ego

On being in a situation where you may feel overwhelmed, Pam says the trick is not to show your fear, and not to feel you have to fill the air. Take time to regroup if necessary – call a proverbial time-out if you need it. And if you don’t know something, it’s okay to say you don’t know. People often assume you’ll lose credibility if you do that but the opposite is true. Don’t let your ego get the best of you. Be prepared to admit to yourself that you won’t know everything. That opens you up to better listening in a negotiation. When you truly open up to actively listen to the other party, it’s incredible what doors and opportunities that can open. 

Your Most Important Negotiation: Negotiating Your Mindset

Negotiate your own mindset so you can show up with confidence, even if you’re not really feeling it at the outset. Decide how you want to show up. Women are often criticized for being ‘too nice’. Pam recounted a story where she was coaching girls’ varsity lacrosse, and even though she had a winning season she was lambasted with the ‘accusation’ that “You’re too nice – this isn’t how we coach here!”

And yet, ironically, at the other end, when women are assertive, we’re accused of being too aggressive (or any number of other even less flattering characterizations).

On Being the ‘Token’ Woman

Added to that, there’s the issue of being accused of being the ‘token’ woman when you achieve placements in positions of power. Pam suggests that rather than being upset about it, when you get an opportunity take it – don’t turn it down on ceremony – make the most of it.

If you want more tips and strategies on how to negotiate as a woman in a so-called ‘man’s world’ check out the podcast interview. 



gender bias, male-dominated industries, man's world, Pam Lester, women as commodities

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