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The Female Negotiator

By Sandy Asherman and Ira Asherman

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There can be little doubt as to the importance of effective negotiation skills to today’s manager, be it negotiating with co-workers for resources, vendors on price, joint venture partners over agreement terms or with government agencies on the approval of a new product. We are faced with similar challenges on a personal level, negotiating with contractors, with the couple from whom we are trying to buy that new house, the car dealer on price and terms, and with our spouse or children.

The Issue

Both men and women are faced with dealing with these issues; however, many of the women in our workshops have raised additional concerns related to how they are treated when they negotiate. The general reaction is – more is expected from us; we’re not treated the same way as men are. As one woman suggested in a recent program, “I am always careful as to how assertive I am.” A second participant echoed this concern when she pointed out, “We are expected to be feminine, but when we do assert ourselves it can come across as not being a team player, not being collaborative.” There is a great deal in the literature to support this concern – the essential message being that women are viewed differently than their male counterparts. To quote Hannah Riley Bowles, “We do have a greater expectation of niceness from women than from men. There’s a body of research showing that when women step into the realm of stereotypically masculine behavior and use an authoritative or directive leadership style…that this doesn’t feel right coming from a woman.”

Deborah M. Kolb and Judith Williams, (Listening to Women: New Perspectives on Negotiation), reinforced this concern when they pointed out that, “the forceful tactics needed to advocate effectively can provoke retaliation, while collaborative overtures can be read as an invitation to press for concessions.”

The dilemma women face was summarized in a recent article in the newsletter, “Negotiation,” published by the Program on Negotiation at The Harvard Law School. The unsigned article pointed out that, “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,” Not wanting to be seen as unfeminine, women may take a more accommodating approach to the negotiation process.

In their book, Women Don’t Ask – Negotiation and the Gender Divide, Sara Laschever and Linda Babcock extend this argument and suggest that in many instances women do not get to the bargaining table. To quote them: “Our book is the first to recognize that women don’t even get to the negotiation table – they do not try to negotiate nearly as often as men…Our studies show that even among women in their 20s and 30s, men are much more likely to negotiate than women.” They also point out that, “women are much less likely than men to ask for what they want and to use negotiation as a tool to promote their own ambitions or desires.”

Where is all this coming from? Is it something unique to women or is there something about our culture that sends a message telling women what is acceptable and what is not. Laschever and Babcock suggest that the problem is cultural. Again, to quote them, “The evidence is overwhelming that this is a problem for which our society is to blame – that it is a socially constructed problem rather than something innate to females or just a blind spot women don’t recognize. As a society, we teach women that it is not appropriate or “feminine” for them to focus on what they want, to assert their own ambitions and pursue their self-interests, and we don’t like it when they do.” However, when women do negotiate, there is an interesting distinction, “women don’t have a problem when negotiating on behalf of others or (they) can be great negotiators when they’re promoting their company’s interests. This reluctance to initiate negotiations seems to strike women when asking for things for themselves – for instance, raises, promotions, or plum projects. Women are excellent advocates on behalf of others, whether the other is an employer, a colleague, a friend or family member.”

The authors go on to suggest that women bring a very different approach to the negotiating process than do their male counterparts. They suggest that women bring a “collaborative or cooperative approach to negotiation…which often produces creative solutions to problems that might have been overlooked by men taking a more competitive or adversarial approach. Also, by looking for those win/win solutions, women tend to preserve and enhance long-term business relationships – they don’t burn as many bridges as men who focus on short-term gains.”

Lynne Cannon, formerly the VP of Human Resources at both BMS and Novartis and currently the CEO of the Princeton Management Development Institute, conducted a series of focus groups with women scientific leaders in both pharmaceutical and biotech firms. Her findings were very similar to those already identified by Babcock and Laschever, as well as others. She reports that, “Women scientists and clinicians were at times not sufficiently assertive and pro-active in their own behalf and did not always look for the stretch assignments that could make a positive impact on their careers.” Ms. Cannon went on to point out that many women also feel constrained, since aggressive behavior is frequently seen as negative by their male counterparts. As a result, women do not feel as free to express their emotions and feelings as men do – what is seen as acceptable in men is not seen similarly in women.

The Female Negotiator by Sandy Asherman and Ira Asherman


Copyright © 2013 Ira G. Asherman
Copyright ©   2013  The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  June-July 2013