Using Gender Roles in Compensation Negotiations

Using Gender Roles in Compensation Negotiations

Gender stereotypes and expectations play a role in negotiation, and can be used to your advantage.  This is especially true in compensation negotiations where the parties on opposite sides of the table ultimately hope to end up on the same team. Stereotypically, women see negotiation as an opportunity to build relationships or community.  Men, on the other hand, regard negotiation as a contest dealing with the specific problem or substantive issue, not as part of an ongoing relationship.

According to stereotype, women use a collaborative, cooperative style, while men are more competitive or confrontational.  Women often see both sides’ interests as interwoven, and use negotiation as an opportunity to build rapport.  They ask more questions and use stories or narratives to get to the root of the problem. For men, since the negotiation is a separate and distinct activity with the purpose of establishing status and position, the stance is more adversarial.  Men more often use persuasion, argument, and debate, give advice, and express opinions.  When negotiating with a current or prospective employer, using stereotypical feminine strengths can strengthen the long-term relationship and improve one’s position for future negotiations with same party.

Women may start at a disadvantage, however.  Because they haven’t been in positions of power in the business or legal communities as long as men have, women aren’t automatically seen as legitimate negotiators; thus, they may not be taken seriously.  Women also may be excluded from, or not understand, the rituals connected with negotiation. Furthermore, they often are expected to act in certain ways, because of assumed traits, such as being passive, compliant, nonaggressive, noncompetitive, accommodating, and attending to the needs of others.  Therefore, the way a woman acts or speaks might be interpreted differently than if a man did or said the same thing.

Studies show that women set lower goals and don’t negotiate as frequently as men do, and do better when advocating on behalf of others than on behalf of themselves.  Either women don’t know when negotiation is possible, or they’re afraid to negotiate because they believe society reacts negatively when women assert their own needs.  They often want to be liked and worry about what the firm will think of them, or even may punish them, for asking for what they want.  However, women are seen as “caring” when asserting others’ needs, which falls within stereotypically feminine attributes.  Thus, they experience less social backlash for utilizing a stronger negotiating style in those situations.

A woman can take advantage of this feminine trait, whether negotiating opposite a man or a woman, by mentally reframing the negotiation so her own needs aren’t primary.  For example, in compensation negotiations, a better outcome benefits not only the individual, but also her family, or other women in the organization, or in the legal profession as a whole.  Successful salary negotiations on behalf of any individual woman help narrow the gender gap between men’s and women’s earnings across the board.

Rather than approaching negotiation as combat, think of it as a game involving a process of back and forth. Victoria Pynchon of “She Negotiates” says, “Negotiation is just a conversation leading to agreement.”  Women shouldn’t passively accept the first offer.  In most cases, some negotiation is expected.  In fact, failure to do so can be a negative.  Women mustn’t overlook opportunities to negotiate.  If the base salary is set in stone, what else is on table?  Ask, “Where is there ‘wiggle room’?  What can you do to sweeten the deal?”

Remember, with a potential employer, your compensation negotiations demonstrate how you would negotiate on behalf of the firm or its clients.  They don’t want to hire a pushover.  Likewise, allow other party to save face; give them time to parry a while so they can look like they’re not “rolling over” and giving up so easily, either.

Work on creating a win-win situation. Use the stereotypical female approach of asking questions to ascertain the other party’s underlying needs, limitations, and agenda.  Look for common ground first; using “we” as much as possible.  State your requests in terms of how they benefit the other party.  While prospective employers really don’t care about your personal needs, such as the high cost of nannies, mortgage, student loans, or your children’s tuition, they do care about what profits them directly.  Therefore, don’t hesitate to ask for any benefit, like a larger office, additional team members, client development budget, further training, or professional memberships, which would allow you to do a better job. Or, for example, offer to base some portion of your compensation on your production.  For example: “If I bring in $500,000 in new business by X date, my salary should be increased by Y%.”  That way, the prospective employer only pays more if they collect more, and both parties benefit.

Come up with nonconfrontational ways to maintain your position.  You can say something like, “I appreciate it, but that’s not what I was expecting” and then keep silent and wait for them to respond.  The waiting game may require nerves of steel, but the result may be worth it.  They may jump in with another offer or concession to break an uncomfortable silence.

Women are seen as more emotional than men in general, which can affect negotiations.  Many experts advise negotiators to distance themselves from their emotions and maintain a cool, calm demeanor.  The truth is that we’re all human, and the people on the other side of the table have feelings, too.  The trick is to acknowledge and use your emotions to your advantage.

According to “Negotiating with Emotion”, which appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, there are a series of questions you can use to prepare yourself emotionally for the negotiation table.  They include:

  1. How do you want to feel going into the negotiation?

Visualize yourself striking a balance between being simultaneously calm and alert, proactive and patient, fully grounded yet creative.

  1. What can you do beforehand to put yourself in an ideal emotional state?

Like an actor preparing to go on stage, develop rituals to get into character.  Learn what works for you and, just before negotiating, meditate, exercise, listen to calming or invigorating music, visualize, or do some deep breathing.

  1. What can throw you off balance during a negotiation?

Think about a time when you didn’t perform at your best. What happened, and why? Learn from your experience. Ask for candid feedback from negotiating teammates.

  1. What can you do in the midst of a negotiation to regain your balance?

Plan ahead to take a time out, literally or figuratively, just like a sports team does to break the momentum of opponents on a roll.  You can take a bathroom break, ask for a glass of water, take a deep breath, change your posture, or change the subject.

Practice!  Look for opportunities to negotiate over smaller matters in your personal and everyday life.  Notice how often you can and do negotiate with your colleagues, friends, children, and significant other each day.  Make the most of those opportunities, using the techniques described above.  Set up role playing practice sessions, as well.

When it comes time to negotiate, women also must monitor their voice and body language.  When you walk into the room, exude energy and confidence.  Greet your opposite negotiator with a smile, eye contact, and a strong handshake.  Use straightforward language—friendly, but without a lot of qualifiers.  Aim to keep your voice strong, low, and even, matching your rate, tone, and volume to your opposing party. Don’t let the inflection rise at end of your sentences as if asking a question, which undercuts your message.  Maintain an open posture and stake out your space, rather than making yourself as small as possible.

And, proceed as you practiced and visualized.

Valerie Fontaine
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