Do women find negotiations more difficult, challenging, and anxiety-invoking than men? I suspect most of us think so and my experience in teaching negotiation suggests so. But if this broad generalization has some validity, it remains a mystery why thi s is the case. There are many excellent books that deal effectively with negotiation strategies and tactics.1 Yet, my view is that women often do less well in negotiating environments not simply because they adopt inferior tactics, but rather because they do not recognize when they are (or should be) negotiating and what they are negotiating about.
As a case in point, I have been the director of our Ph.D. program for several years. On a number of occasions, women candidates have expressed frustration that men in the program seem to be given more opportunities to teach (rather than TA) courses. While this was in fact the case, when I asked the person responsible for teaching assignments why this was so, his basic response was, "I try to find teaching opportunities for any student who approaches me with a good idea for a course, the ability to t each, and a reasonable offer about what it will cost." The fact is, our women students seldom make the offer to teach courses - primarily, I think, because they don't realize or want to accept that teaching is a negotiable item.
In this article, I want to briefly outline some of the issues outside the realm of tactics and strategy that I believe hinder women in achieving excellent negotiated results. In doing so in a short article, I will make what may seem overly broad gene ralizations about the behavior of an inherently diverse set of people - namely, women. While I do not believe that these generalizations characterize all women, I do think there are forces at work in society that tend to shape women's responses to negoti ating environments in ways which are different than the responses of most men. It is these tendencies that I hope are broadly accurate.
1. Recognizing Opportunities for Negotiation
We normally think of negotiations as being very structured interactions like buying a house or a car. When we encounter these types of situations we know that we are supposed to make an offer on the house or the car rather than accepting the status quo of the asking or sticker price.
However, there are numerous situations we encounter where we do accept the status quo and do not think to negotiate. This is a mistake and it is more likely to be made by women. Again, as director of our Ph.D. program, a student remarked to me that two male students had gone through our May graduation ceremony even though they weren't defending their theses until late summer. She was disappointed because she had wanted to go through the ceremony but knew she wasn't defending until late summer. The problem was that she never asked me if she could go through graduation (I would have said yes). Both male students had asked. Because she failed to recognize this as an opportunity for negotiation, it led to an inferior outcome for both of us (I would have been happy to see her go through graduation).
My main conclusion from these and other experiences is that women need to become more assertive in pursuing their objectives. To do this, women need to regard more situations as negotiations and consider all (or most) things as negotiable. Women mus t realize that opportunities and outcomes must be claimed for oneself rather than waiting for them to be offered.
2. Anxiety about Negotiating
I have found that there are big differences in the degree to which men and women are comfortable negotiating, even once it is understood that negotiation is necessary. For the past ten years, I have taught a negotiation class in our masters program in p ublic policy and management. For their first assignment, the students describe why they have chosen to take this class (it is not required). There is an enormous difference between the typical descriptions by women and men -- I'm quite confident that, r eading them anonymously, I could separate out the women's assignments from the men's. The vast majority of female students report reasons such as "I'm very uncomfortable conducting negotiations so I need to force myself to do them to gain confidence". F emale students also describe how they avoid situations that involve negotiations ("I had my brother negotiate the purchase of my car for me") or simply take what is offered them ("I'd rather accept a job offer as is than face the anxiety of negotiating fo r more" or "Asking for more money could really spoil my relationship with my new boss"). They report that they are taking my course to become more assertive in this domain. Male students tend to report reasons such as "I want to learn ways to win more n egotiations."
Why the difference between men and women? While the exact mechanism remains unclear, I believe that this level of discomfort has to do with the fact that women tend to view the conflict inherent in negotiating as jeopardizing relationships that we va lue. In most negotiating situations, substantive and relationship issues are largely independent and should be treated that way in negotiating environments.2 For example, I can have a good relationship with my Dean that rests on clear communi cation and mutual respect and is independent of the resolution of my salary, teaching load, and committee assignments. Men are more likely to operate under the assumption of this independence. Women are more likely to either avoid negotiation altogether or to trade off potential gains on substantive issues to insure against perceived relationship threats.
Women need to find ways to combat their anxiety over negotiation. Realizing that negotiation is an accepted and expected activity and can be conducted assertively while maintaining strong relationships should be a first step in doing this.
3. Thinking Carefully about Interests and Priorities
It may seem an obvious point, but it is difficult to reach your objectives in a negotiation if you are unsure about what you are trying to achieve. I'm not suggesting that people are completely uncertain about their preferences but only that they haven' t given them as much thought as they should. Lots of people ask me for negotiation advice about what offers they should make and what strategies they should use. Instead of answering them I usually ask them what their objectives are for the negotiation -- what are their underlying interests and what are their priorities over the issues that are to be negotiated. I am always struck by how little thought is given to identifying these.
This confusion even takes place in business contexts. I occasionally conduct training seminars for organizations to improve the negotiation skills of their employees. In one particular organization, I was teaching their national sales staff skills w ays to improve the contracts they negotiated with clients. The contracts they negotiated involved multiple issues. I gave them 12 contracts I had generated by varying the outcomes on each of the issues and asked each of them to rank them from best to wo rst. There was virtually no agreement among the staff as to what were the best and worst contracts. They also found this exercise extremely difficult to do. Furthermore, very few people had ranked the contracts similarly to the rankings supplied by the ir managers. If the sales staff was unsure what to negotiate and if there is a wide range of opinions about what should be aspired to, it would be futile to devote a lot of energy to building skills in negotiation strategy.
My advice here is that it is extremely important to enter into a negotiation with a clear idea of your negotiation objectives and your preferences over the issues to be negotiated. For example, in a job negotiation, how important is salary relative t o teaching load and research support? Furthermore, do not neglect the other sides' objectives and preferences. A successful negotiation requires agreement by both (or many) parties. Therefore, finding creative ways to reach a good outcome for yourself while still meeting the objective of the other side is critical.
4. Viewing Negotiation as Zero-Sum Rather than Variable-Sum
While there is surely a distributive or competitive aspect to negotiations, it is a mistake to view all negotiations as zero-sum. In negotiations with multiple issues there are efficient and inefficient outcomes that could be reached. Especially when t he status quo is inefficient, negotiation can improve the outcomes of all parties.
Viewing negotiations as strictly competitive is common and inhibits the ability to reach efficient outcomes.3 The key to reaching these efficient outcomes is the ability to understand how the underlying interests of both sides can be met a nd how differences in priorities over the issues can be traded off.
It is my experience that this is an area of strength for women. Men have historically had more experience in strictly competitive situations, such as sports, and tend to transfer this perspective to negotiations. Women bring a more cooperative and p roblem-solving approach and a willingness to understand the interests of the other side to the bargaining table. By doing so, women can obtain better outcomes than a strictly competitive approach would produce.
1 Howard Raiffa, The Art and Science of Negotiation, 1982; Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, 1991; Leigh Thompson, The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator, 1998.
2 Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, Getting Together: Building a Relationship That Gets to Yes, 1988.
3 Max Bazerman and Margaret Neale, "Negotiating Rationally," 1992.
Linda Babcock is an Associate Professor of Economics at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. She is currently conducting research for a book on women and negotiation and would appreciate any feedback on this article as well as recollections of your personal negotiation experience. Her email address is: email@example.com.