Advice to Women Negotiators: It Shouldn't Be About You

Last Updated Sep 27, 2011 1:59 PM EDT

One suspected source of the pay gap between men and women has long been that men are supposedly better negotiators than women. Men are more likely than women to ask for more pay in their very first full-time job, which sets the stage for higher pay throughout a career. That tendency--of asking for more, more often--only makes the wage gap worse as men and women advance in their careers.

Now, a new study from Michael Morris, of Columbia Business School, and Emily Amanatullah, of the McCombs School of Business of the University of Texas at Austin, shows that women are actually good negotiators. The problem, however, is that women are excruciatingly aware that they're not supposed to be good negotiators, and that they may face a social backlash for negotiating well. So they have to negotiate not just the item at hand, such as a salary level, but the expectations their opponents have of women. That's where things start to go off the rails.

Negotiating Salary, and Expectations
The researchers used several experiments to simulate a negotiation in which participants were trying to decide the salary level for a new job. The participants were led to believe they were negotiating with a real person, but in fact the responses to their bids and compromises were determined by a computer. In some cases, the men and women were negotiating on their own behalf. In others, they were negotiating on behalf of a third party.
  • When negotiating their own salaries, women did a lousy job. In fact, in just the first round of negotiations, they conceded nearly 20 percent of the total value of salary.
  • Women want the same salaries as men. When asked how much money they hoped to get out of the negotiations, men and women came up with about the same dollar amounts. They also wanted the same amounts when they were acting on behalf of a colleague as they did when they were negotiating for themselves. So, the researchers conclude, lower financial aspirations are not a factor in determining why women may do worse in negotiations.
  • Women are able to negotiate just as well as men. When women are negotiating on behalf of someone else, they do just as well as men, and just as well as men negotiating for someone else.
Together, these results imply that women are totally capable of doing well in negotiations, but they're timid about trying to do well for themselves. This isn't paranoid. Other experiments in the same paper show that observers are more likely to have a negative impression of a negotiator if that person is female and negotiating on their own behalf. Women are not subject to those same negative impressions if they're negotiating for someone else.

If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them
The researchers suggest that women have to take a different strategy when negotiating, and that training sessions that strive to help make women 'better' negotiators will miss the point in a lot of cases. Instead, the researchers say, women should frame their requests as if they're negotiating for someone else.
  • When negotiating for salary, a woman could frame it as if she's trying to do the best for her family.
  • When negotiating for a bigger budget, a woman could contend that she's just trying to do right by her team.
I'm all for anything (ethical) that will help women's salaries get on par with men. And I think it's good for everyone if women become more successful negotiators. But doesn't it defeat the purpose-just a little-if women accomplish that by counting on stereotypes that portray them as nurturing, gentle, and self-sacrificing?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user Global X
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.