How gender stereotyping at work affects a woman’s negotiation style

Gender stereotyping affects women in many ways, not least of all when negotiating an employment contract, a pay rise, or a promotion according to Barney Jordaan, Professor of Management Practice.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

“Research shows that if women are assertive when they negotiate on their own behalf, this is often seen as not fitting the female stereotype. Women are supposed to be ‘nurturing, selfless caregivers’. As soon as they’re assertive they get labelled as difficult or not nice to work with, whereas of a man, being forceful and assertive when negotiating is expected,” Barney explains. He continues: “However, if a woman negotiates on behalf of someone else, e.g. a team member or her family, then it seems that she’s expected to be forceful and assertive because being forceful and assertive on behalf of others fits the stereotype of the woman as nurturer. If a woman is not assertive enough on behalf of others she could get labelled as weak. Again, if a man didn’t do a good job of negotiating on behalf of someone else the consequences would not be as severe. Interestingly and ironically, however, it’s not only men that hold such negative views, women also tend to view non-conforming women in a negative light.”

Long-term consequences

The result of this social pressure and gender stereotyping has a psychological impact on the way women negotiate on their own behalf. Barney: “Because of an apparent fear of a backlash if they are too assertive, women tend to lower their aspirations and ask for less than they’re entitled to. This is a self-protection strategy, rather than an indication that women are less skilled in negotiation than men.” The problem is that the results of negotiations may linger for a long time. “If you could have had a 3% salary increase but only managed to negotiate 1.5% then this has an ongoing effect, because next year’s increase is also going to be based on what you negotiated this year and the previous year.”

Some tips

If all this sounds rather glum, there is hope. Women can protect themselves against a stereotyped backlash when they take a forceful stand by doing the following:

  • Connect to others and use we-language
    “Suppose you, as a woman, discover that you get paid less than a male colleague with the same qualifications, doing the same job. If you go to your boss telling him ‘I know the company prides itself in non-discrimination and equality, but here is what I just found out. How are we going to deal with this?’ then you’ve turned it into a company problem. Although you’re negotiating for yourself, you’ve put it into a different context, by connecting your needs to the broader company needs.”
  • Do your homework
    “Prepare, prepare, prepare. Set clear goals and high aspirations, but make sure you can defend these. When negotiating a pay rise, for example, bring along objective norms and measures so that you can convince the other party that what you’re asking is fair and in line with what’s generally accepted for people with your qualifications. Then you’ll be negotiating a proposal that reflects your worth as a professional.”
  • Develop your status
    “Women with high status don’t experience the same backlash as others when being assertive. This status isn’t necessarily a title or a position, but something you can develop by showing your expertise or authority in a particular subject matter. People will then see you as an assertive person who knows what she’s talking about, which will help to limit the chance of a backlash.”
  • Give yourself a psychological lift
    “Before entering a negotiation, take a moment to reflect on a situation where you felt in control. Experiments with a group of female students showed that those who were asked to reflect on events in their lives the day before prior to negotiating generally negotiated lower-value deals for themselves afterwards than those who were asked to first think of a situation where they felt confident and strong.”

Practice makes perfect

Is there anything companies can do? “Absolutely,” says Barney. “Organisations should ask themselves whether their corporate culture helps to defeat gender stereotypes. Even if a company takes a firm stance against discrimination, the effects of stereotyping on the confidence of women generally to negotiate more assertively could take time to counteract. So organisations should also address raising the confidence level of women in the work environment, overcoming the stereotypical image that people have of women and women have of themselves.”

Women in turn can build confidence by practicing their assertiveness skills in low-risk environments, e.g., at home or when shopping. Barney: “Try negotiating a discount when buying a car, or negotiating rental, for example. The more you practice to be assertive while remaining friendly, the more you’ll carry that skill into your work environment.”

Relentlessly friendly

So women face hurdles based on stereotyping, but there is hope and there are things they can do, things which any effective negotiator, man or woman, should take to heart. “It’s as if women are expected to be either competent and assertive or likeable, while actually it’s a matter of being both – being likeable in the sense that you can build strong relationships, have empathy and inspire trust, while demonstrating your competence and being assertive at the same time. This is how every good negotiator should be, male or female,” is how Barney puts it. “The expression ‘relentlessly friendly’ sums it up rather nicely,” he adds with a smile.

To conclude Barney has a final piece of advice: “Research suggests that 96% of conversations end the way they started. So, create the right climate for those difficult conversations: focus on the common ground, show appreciation for what the company has done for you so far where appropriate, be direct in your requests, but express them in a manner that allows for you to be heard. Always remember that how you engage in the discussion is critically important, for men and women alike.”

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