Perspective: The value of empowering effective female negotiation

Written by
Professor Sunny (Sun Young) Lee, UCL School of Management

26 Nov 2020

26 Nov 2020 • by Professor Sunny (Sun Young) Lee, UCL School of Management

Across the board, women are not negotiating for better salaries. Changing this narrative is a collective responsibility, explains Professor Sunny Lee.

The job website Glassdoor observes that women typically negotiate remarkably less than men in salary negotiations.  

Research in which I was involved has suggested several sources for women’s reticence in negotiations, including the negative reactions of others to women who are assertive and competitive. Our research extends this understanding by discussing how women’s peer cultures and related values may constrain their own behaviours.

Peer cultures, often related to gender and other demographic characteristics, affect a wide array of attitudes and behaviours including negotiations. 

Managing groups is key to negotiation

The first gender difference we identified is that compared to men, women are less comfortable in functioning in large groups while good at maintaining intimate dyadic relationships with relatively known others. By contrast, men are found to be good at managing collectives as they spend more time interacting with a broader spectrum of others in larger groups. This suggests that women may perform more poorly in multi-party negotiations, where the ability to navigate multiple parties and to manage effective coalitions is a key for success. 

The second gender difference we observed was that men, who are often exposed to more intergroup competition (e.g., team sports) as part of their socialisation, tend to feel more comfortable with competing with others for status. By contrast, women, due to a peer culture that has a greater appreciation for harmony and equality, often find competition inherently undesirable. Given all negotiations have a competitive component, this difference might explain a greater reluctance to enter negotiations and suboptimal performance during negotiations. 

Lastly, in women’s friendships, a higher level of exclusivity is typically required, and tolerance for conflicts is lower than in male’s group-based friendships. This difference has an implication in work relationships that shifts between competitive situations such as negotiations and cooperative ones. After women negotiate with their coworkers, they might find it difficult to cooperate with them in new tasks, in short, experiencing some relational damage.

Research and popular articles have highlighted how costly the absence of negotiation can be. A failure to negotiate at work can lead to lower salaries and the dismissal of important career opportunities. A failure to empower women in negotiations can hurt organisations as well, by narrowing their talent pipeline. 

Actively shifting the negotiation dynamic

So what can we do to encourage women to engage more actively in negotiations at their work? Although our personalities and value systems are often shaped early on, adults can change their beliefs and behaviours through the intention for change and regular practice. First, if you find negotiations negative and difficult, you first need to consider the wide array of benefits that negotiations can bring you and any organisations you are a part of. Open and proactive negotiations for promotions can open avenues for better development and training, which can be beneficial to employees and employers.

Second, if you identify practice as the issue, begin by taking part in company-organised workshops on negotiations, or encourage your workplace to set them up. Outside work, debate clubs, volunteer groups, or team sports such as netball or soccer all can be a great setting where individuals naturally interact with multiple others, negotiate for a variety of decisions, and form and dissolve different allies. Like many other things, practice will make negotiation more comfortable. 

Finally, women need to check the degree to which emotions play a role in negotiating situations, as emotions are one of the strongest habits. Even after broadening our view on negotiation, negative emotions may arise from time to time. There is no one-for-all solution for emotion management. But research has shown that we can manage our emotions to a good extent through paying attention our own self-narratives. 

Although I have highlighted a set of things women can do themselves to be more active and comfortable in negotiations, I do not suggest that it is all about changing ourselves. Organisations should provide support, given that employees’ thoughts and behaviours are constantly shaped and reshaped in the workplaces, where they spend much of their waking life.  

Organisations must set up cultures and procedures where employees can openly propose different ideas to their company, as well as to each other. 

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