What women want- and how they negotiate for it

Though stereotypes dictate that women are less effective than men in business negotiations, the reality often proves otherwise.

Recently the UK trade minister pointed out that, at the current rate, it will take 70 years to achieve gender balance in their country’s government procurement offices. Generally speaking, a procurement job requires certain behavioral attributes that are indicative of a heavy bias against women. These attributes are described using adjectives such as ‘aggressiveness’, ‘rigidity’, and ‘stubbornness’. And it is almost a universal stereotype that men make better negotiators than women.

In a paper published in 2001, three prominent behavioral scientists, Laura Kray, Leigh Thompson, and Adam Gallinsky demonstrate that “stereotyping leads to female disadvantage at the negotiation table.” The current recruitment environment suggests that gender diversity is part of the strategic agenda for most organizations. While many are asking questions on the relevance of diversity over merit, this raises a key question for the recruiting organization: Are men better suited for job roles that require negotiations compared to women?

Kellogg Graduate School of Management conducted a series of scenario experiments on gender traits for successful negotiations. These experiments reveal that on instances of cross-gender negotiations, women tend to fare better than men. Cross-gender teams can actually make a greater impact on a deal compared with uni-gender teams. So, is there a gender trick to effective negotiations?

Distributing it right: According to behavioural scientists, the trick lies in distributing negotiation discussions between the male and female members in ways that most effectively exploit the strengths of both genders. A negotiation comprises phases that can best be described by terms such as ‘assertive’, ‘dominant’, ‘decisive’, ‘ambitious’, and ‘self-oriented’. These are typical male traits and hence, males in the negotiation team are better suited to deal in these situations – or so goes the conventional wisdom. Again, there are components that require female-associated behaviour, such as ‘warm’, ‘expressive’, ‘nurturing’, and ‘emotional’. A good plan incorporates precision-planning on attributes to exploit at various points of the negotiation conversation.

The element of surprise: While both genders typically demonstrate behaviours true to their stereotypes, outlier behaviour can be the deal clincher. An outlier is one who possesses certain attributes atypical of the gender, such as aggressiveness in a female, or ‘being emotional’ in a male. A display of outlier behavior at a critical juncture can tip the balance in favour a team. In the movie Erin Brockovich, the eponymous character played by Julia Roberts effectively negotiates a multi-million dollar settlement deal for her clients by surprising her more-experienced opposition with a display of uncharacteristic aggressiveness.

Plan for the audience: It is important to plan negotiations based on the audience. Traditionally a male bastion, the demographics of a negotiation table are slowly changing. In recent times, more and more women have been taking senior leadership positions. Conventional negotiation-planning based on the premise of assertiveness and aggression may not work when dealing with female leaders.

Two Harvard scholars, Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen L. Mcginn reveal in their 2008 paper on negotiations and gender inequality that organizations stand to gain significant benefits through a deeper engagement with the dynamic of gender distribution in negotiation teams. It appears that having a woman at the negotiation table might just be the best idea to clinch the deal.


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