Women's Negotiation "Problem" May Be Power, Not Gender

Victoria Pynchon

Which came first - discrimination against women in pay and power or women's own failure to negotiate the pay and power we deserve? If you ask this question of most business women today, they'll say discrimination came first.

But if they've been paying attention to press coverage about the social science on women and negotiation, they're likely to blame themselves for failing to achieve as much as their male counterparts.

I'm afraid to negotiate, they'll say. And when I do negotiate, I'm more likely to get blowback than a raise. What I'm supposed to do is negotiate nicely, to be relentlessly pleasant, to use we and not me language so that I'm not crossing gender boundaries.

As someone who makes part of my living teaching women to negotiate, I obviously believe we can reach wage and income parity more quickly if we ask for what we deserve and learn the bargaining skills necessary to get what we ask for. But I'm pretty well fed up with the "gender boundary" advice.

You think we would have gotten the vote in 1920 if we'd colored within the lines of our gender roles? Or we would have entered business and the professions in droves had we cleaved to society's expectations of us in 1970 or '71 or '72? I don't think so. What I think is that no well-behaved woman ever made history.

It's Not About Gender; It's About Power

When I interviewed Professor Adam Galinsky not long ago he told me that gender is just a proxy for power. Women's "negotiation problem" isn't caused by their gender; it's caused by their status and their status is caused by . . . . well, that's the chicken and egg problem, right and I think we've already answered that question here.

I was poking around the internet today to find out what Galinksy was talking about because, at the time, I was mostly interested in the break-down in negotiations over the debt ceiling. I found some tentative answers in the Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology which explained that negotiation differences attributed to gender are more likely about power relations than female hormones. That, coupled with what I know about the Gender Dividend, leads me to believe that commerce needs to change more to accommodate the styles of its new diverse workforce than its work face needs to change to accommodate it.

The Old Negotiation Normal

Because women came so late to the game of commerce, most broken business deals I litigated during my twenty-five year legal career were negotiated by businessmen, drafted by male lawyers, and breached by male managers and executives. The agreements were reached in competitive distributive bargaining sessions. They were drafted in adversarial settings. And too often they were breached because the party that squeezed the last dime out of his opponent got a little karmic payment in the courtroom.

Although women have flooded business and law schools over the past thirty years, the game is still dominated by men and the system remains competitive and adversarial. And women continue to serve that system primarily in supportive roles, often aping male styles but still failing to reach the executive suites their talent, determination, education and skill suit them for.

As the Handbook of Gender Research informs us:

If women are, or are perceived to be, in a lower status position, then they are unlikely to assert themselves over an individual with perceived high status, regardless of that person's gender. In [some academics' view] polite speech is utilized more by lower status individuals in an attempt to lessen an imposition on [them].

Women May Well Not Have a Negotiations "Deficit" After All

I've spent no small amount of time here talking about the vastly superior benefits of collaborative interest-based negotiation strategies. Not only do they deliver more value, they tend to result in agreements that don't land the parties in Court fighting over the meaning of terms like "may" and "shall" or "all" and "any."

So who's got the negotiation deficit here? The Handbook notes that

Negotiation, like assertiveness training, may be viewed as a woman-blaming approach that holds women responsible for both the problem of the gender gap in pay and for resolving gender discrimination.

Not only that, but what if women's styles are the new normal and men's begin to be labeled uncooperative, disruptive, self-centered and privileged as the Handbook suggests they could easily be? You know I hate the gender wars, but we must attend to whose culture we decide to call "normal" because "normal" determines who gets labeled "deviant, irrational inferior and deficient."

So before we go running off to charm school to avoid the "blowback" that results from crossing gender boundaries, maybe we should first decide which negotiation strategy and which set of tactics are most effective, create the most value, and remain the most durable. And then why don't we teach them to everyone, male and female. And while we're at it, why don't we begin to walk our diversity talk by making the workplace family-friendly for women and men.

That would be progress. And that's the way we bail out the American economy and get GM and Ford back on their feet again.

And anyway, that whole zero-sum, adversarial, bomb-them-back-into-the-stone-age mentality? How's that workin' for us? Couldn't hurt to try something new.