This week at WAPPP, we got a special treat. Professor Hannah Riley Bowles, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School and WAPPP’s Research Director, presented some of her work on gender and negotiation. This seminar was a great opportunity to not only hear about cutting-edge gender research, but to begin to apply it to ourselves and our organizations. While the material presented focused mostly on women and career negotiations, Professor Riley Bowles noted that all of this is good advice for men, too. However, many of her insights have special relevance for women as they navigate potential career pitfalls.
Much of the popular literature around negotiation focuses on pay, but there are many more reasons to negotiate in your career. Negotiation can enhance your recognition and rewards, play a key role in seizing opportunities to expand your authority, or be used to overcome barriers or career challenges. In a survey of 364 female executives, 80% reported a recent career negotiation, which casts significant doubt on the idea that “women don’t negotiate.” The most common reason to negotiate was seeking a new position or a leadership opportunity, rather than negotiating compensation.
Interestingly, while white and black women in the sample had the same level of seniority, white women reported significantly higher rates of negotiation. While there is not much data on intersectionality and negotiation, this is an important aspect that deserves greater consideration. It is also important to recognize that career negotiations are a two-level game. Negotiations with employers are contingent on negotiations at home and divisions of household labor that help women succeed in their careers. While most literature focuses on employer/employee negotiations, research suggests that these domestic negotiations have a bigger effect on the gender wage gap.
Ambiguity plays a major role in the negotiation gender gap. In particular, there are three key sources of ambiguity: ambiguity about who is negotiating, ambiguity about how to negotiate, and ambiguity about what is negotiable. When you don’t know much about the person you’re negotiating with, it heightens the potential for stereotypic attribution. You may look for salient cues like gender and be more inclined to use that information the less you know about someone. The question of how to negotiate appears to be particularly impactful for women. When professionals are provided with information about the negotiation norms of a company, we see no gender gap in willingness to negotiate. This gender gap only appears when it’s not clear how, when, or whether to negotiate. Finally, there may be significant ambiguity about what is negotiable and what can be put on the table. This ambiguity increases gender gaps in outcomes and may encourage gender stereotypic distribution of resources.
These three forms of ambiguity are problematic because they open the door for issues stemming from gendered social networks and gender stereotypes. Your social network can have a profound impact on the type and quality of information and advice you receive. Individuals tend to form social networks with people like them—men’s social networks in particular are homogeneous and tend to consist of overlapping work and friendship ties. Women report more diverse work ties, but their friendship ties tend to be concentrated outside of work. A man who reaches out to a male colleague and friend for career advice may get significantly different information than a woman who reaches out to the same colleague.
Gender stereotypes can also significantly affect negotiation performance. Descriptive stereotypes (“the way men/women are…”) can seep into our subconscious and trigger stereotype threat. If women are implicitly reminded that they’re supposedly weaker at negotiating, it may jeopardize their negotiation success. Interestingly, according to Professor Riley Bowles, if you explicitly tell men and women that men do better at negotiation because they’re rational-analytic, men get nervous (because they’re not sure it’s true), women get angry, and the gender gap in negotiation outcomes reverses. Prescriptive stereotypes (the way men/women should be…”) also have a major impact on the gender gap in negotiations. Women incur a much larger social cost for negotiating than men, perhaps because they are perceived as “not very nice,” “too demanding,” or otherwise different from the way women "should be."
However, this social cost does not occur in all areas. Professor Riley Bowles' least favorite question (that she loves to answer) is: does this mean that men should negotiate for women? The answer is a resounding no. In a study where men and women were asked to conduct pay negotiations both on their own behalf and on behalf of others, women were much more effective when advocating for someone else, and in this study vastly outperformed every other group. Men are not better negotiators in all circumstances—women do extraordinarily well on behalf of others, but run into difficult situations when dealing with ambiguity, self-advocacy, or negotiating for pay.
How should we navigate this social liability? Professor Riley Bowles suggests negotiating in ways that are relationship-oriented, so that negotiators are able to get what they want and deal with the social cost. Relational accounts – also known as the I/We Strategy—are one method of doing just that. Negotiators using the I/We Strategy employ legitimate explanations for what they want that are persuasive to their negotiating counterpart while signaling concern for organizational relationships. Rather than saying “I’m overworked and won’t be able to keep up if you don’t hire another person,” say, “This is a strategic opportunity for the company to grow in this area.” Focusing on win-wins and making legitimate concerns transparent are two key ways to reduce the social cost of negotiation.
In closing, Professor Riley Bowles asked us to each think of a current, anticipated, or desired career-related negotiation and to make specific, realistic goals for what we want to achieve. We each received a workbook to guide our preparation. Based on this research, to improve our outcomes we can work to reduce ambiguity and to employ an I/We Strategy. How do you plan to handle your next negotiation?