OMG! What did she just ask for? On women and negotiations…

By 17 March 2015 August 22nd, 2019 Change, Personal Development

Recently a client asked me to put together two seminars on negotiation for women. I’ve always enjoyed teaching negotiation, based on my studies at Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution. Not having taught negotiation exclusively to a group of women before, but only to mixed gender groups, and drawing from my continuing interest in working with women through the forums that I started in 2012,  I was interested to refresh the topic for myself with this new angle. Accordingly, I read up on the latest studies about women and negotiation.

Often I have met women in the managerial levels of organisations who struggle with assertiveness, only to be surprised by exactly how assertive they can be in the right circumstances.  With their friends or informally, when the barriers are down, they can be quite forthcoming and articulate about their opinions and aims, but at work there seem to be self-imposed limits.  If you’ve read much of this blog previously, you’ll know that determining your purpose in work and life, and allowing yourself to be purposefully selfish in pursuing it, is critical to success and leadership.

What is it about negotiation and asking for what you want, that makes having a sense of purpose so elusive for some?

The research is quite startling. It proves what we have intuitively known for some time.There is no difference between genders in ability to negotiate, but women who are assertive are often punished.

In the past I observed to a female client who is a lawyer that when when negotiating for herself she was far less assertive than I knew she had been for others. She replied, “This is true,” but then went on to say that she didn’t know why. This is actually a widely-held phenomenon. When negotiating on behalf of another, women are just as good at negotiating as men are for themselves or for others. When it comes to themselves, women tend to be less assertive, and come in with lower counteroffers. The cause is an ingrained fear of breaking social norms of not being caring and cooperative. It is an innate fear of backlash. And it has been proven that most men and most women, tend to punish women who assert themselves about their own compensation. Fearing this will be the case, many women avoid the situation entirely. And according to another study, women who are seen to be overstepping their status, or behaving powerfully when their social status is more junior, are often criticised or punished by those in more senior positions. (See the Resources page for article references.)

I remember my first job after university was as an Editorial Assistant in the music textbooks division at a big publishing house in New York. With my honors degree in English literature, I thought I was going to go places. Four months later all I had done for my boss (nicknamed by my colleagues “the Dragon Lady”) was type Fed Ex labels and type her contact list onto individual rolodex cards so she could flick through them with her long red talons. In my spare time I helped the department PA with her job and taught her computer skills. I was bored out of my mind. When I found out that I was actually earning $1000 a year less than the PA, I was furious. Feeling I had more talent than typing skills alone, I asked for a raise.  Most likely I was naively assertive about it, not being too clued up about office politics in month 4 of my career. Imagine my humiliation and surprise when The Dragon Lady slid open her drawer, pulled out a fat wadge of paper with names of all the music educators in the United States and told me to get back to my typing. Thankfully, a senior editor who saw me chained to the typewriter day in and day out took pity on me. He knew how to handle the Dragon Lady. “If Victoria thinks she’s such hot stuff, why don’t we give her some more challenging work and see how she handles it?” he told her. He then gave me the copyeditor’s test which I passed with flying colours and three years later I had risen 4 levels and was the youngest Project Editor the company had ever had.

But my story isn’t unique, I hear from women who don’t get the promotions and financial rewards they deserve.

The assertive ones get squashed, and the inhibited ones seethe.

The experts tell us that the way around this is through several things:

  • When asking for a raise or promotion, make reference to your relationships in the organisation with powerful people in a non-threatening manner. For example, “My former boss and mentor, X, recommended that I put myself forward for this role.”
  • Reference your skills and how you will specifically apply them to the organisation’s benefit. For example, “It may seem bold of me to ask for this, but given my track record in the company and my knowledge of the department, my assertiveness could work well if I were to handle the management of suppliers that the role requires.”
  • Maintain relationships by solving the problem of your lack of compensation or promotion together. For example, “Knowing how hard it was to get the headcount for my role and how hectic the production cycles can be, I’d like to cut my teeth on some more challenging work so I can be more helpful later on.”
    OR “Given my honors degree and the fact that I had my choice of two roles in the company, I was really surprised to find out I am earning less than the PA. I’m sure the company wouldn’t want to be thought to be inconsistent in its salary policies. What has to happen to resolve the situation?”

And what do you do if you are the boss?
If you find yourself thinking that the younger generation is just a bit too entitled, try to see past this and establish objective performance targets and communicate clearly on the potential rewards. If you find yourself often relying on a woman in your department and feeling grateful for her contributions, take the time to think about how she compares to others at her level and then look up hers and their salary figures. Is there some adjustment that needs to happen? And if you find yourself on the other end of a woman’s attempts at being assertive, remember that you, too, have been in her shoes.  How can you help her develop the important skill of negotiation and influence?

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures

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