Should Women “Lean In” to Create More Value in Negotiations?

How Can a Woman Create More Value at the Bargaining Table?

By — on / Dealmaking


Back in early 2008, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg began thinking about hiring Sheryl Sandberg, a vice president at Google and a former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, as the social-media company’s new chief operating officer. The two met several nights a week for almost two months to discuss Facebook’s mission and future. Finally, Zuckerberg made an offer. Sandberg felt it was fair. What’s more, as she recounts in her bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013), she was “dying to accept the job.” But her husband urged her not to take the first offer on the table.


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Sandberg balked: What if, by playing hardball, she antagonized Zuckerberg?
She was on the verge of accepting when words from her brother-in-law stopped her in her tracks: “Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job?”

Newly motivated, Sandberg told Zuckerberg that she couldn’t accept his offer. She noted that he was hiring her to run his deal teams. “This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table,” Sandberg said, then laid out what she wanted. The next day, Zuckerberg came back to her with a significantly better offer.

Stories like this one from Sandberg’s book, which is aimed at motivating women to aspire to leadership positions, appear to be striking a chord among women professionals. In fact, evidence suggests that females who typically pass up opportunities to negotiate on their own behalf at work have found a new role model—and justification—for more assertive behavior.

Why Women Haven’t Asked

In a chapter called “Success and Likeability” in Lean In, Sandberg sums up the catch-22 that confronts women professionals by citing a study by Frank Flynn (Columbia Business School) and Cameron Anderson (University of California, Berkeley). In the study, participants read a description of an outgoing, well-connected, and successful venture capitalist. Some participants were told that the person’s name was Howard; others were told it was Heidi.

When asked to judge Howard/Heidi based on the identical descriptions, the participants perceived them to be equally competent. Yet while Howard was judged to be pleasant to work with, Heidi was judged to be selfish and an unappealing colleague.

This and other research suggests that we tend to respond more favorably to successful men than to successful women. Why? When men focus on their careers, they fulfill familiar stereotypes of men as driven, decisive providers. But when women demonstrate drive and determination in the workplace, they violate gender stereotypes of women as sensitive, communal caregivers.

Internalizing this dilemma, women correctly intuit that they will be punished—in the form of being disliked by their coworkers—for negotiating on their own behalf. As discussed in past Negotiation articles, research bears out this expectation. In one study, Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues found that participants were less willing to work with women who negotiated for higher compensation and judged them to be less nice than women who didn’t ask for more.

No surprise, then, that women negotiate much less often than men for higher salaries, promotions, and plum assignments: They fear a very real backlash against traditionally unfeminine behavior.

Beyond the Backlash

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Sandberg’s quest to empower women to advocate for themselves may already be having an impact in the workplace. In an article for the website BuzzFeed, Ben Smith writes that numerous women had mentioned Sandberg’s name in salary negotiations with him and other editors just weeks after the book’s publication. After negotiating a new role with Smith, one senior editor stood up to leave, then stopped herself and said, “Sheryl Sandberg would be disappointed in me if I didn’t ask you for a raise.”

The book and its ensuing publicity blitz “have emboldened some women to speak up more directly about compensation,” New York Times editor Jill Abramson told Smith. Negotiation researcher Bowles says that numerous women have told her they feel newly energized to negotiate for higher compensation and other career goals after reading Lean In.

Think Personally, Act Communally

Women can increase their salaries and make other job advances by using what Bowles and her colleagues refer to as relational accounts— explanations for requests that both seem legitimate and display a concern for organizational relationships. For example, when requesting a raise, a woman might explain that her team leader advised her to try to improve her compensation because it is low for her position.

Along these lines, Sandberg advises women negotiators to “think personally, act communally” when negotiating on their own behalf, being careful to substitute “we” for “I”: “We had a great year” rather than “I had a great year.”

Women might even use the persistent gender gap in pay as a communal argument. Sandberg says she advises ladies to explain that they are negotiating for a higher salary because women, in general, are often paid less than men. In this case, women position themselves as showing concern for all women, not just themselves.

Bowles takes Sandberg’s argument a step further, pointing out that Lean In itself has become a powerful argument for a raise or other job-related goal. By citing Sandberg, women reference a known authority and potentially strengthen the legitimacy of their arguments.

Sandberg also advises women negotiators to “combine niceness with insistence,” a style that University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman calls “relentlessly pleasant.” They can do so by expressing concern and appreciation, drawing on common interests, and approaching the negotiation as a problem-solving task.

Toward a Less-Biased Workplace

Much of Sandberg’s advice aligns with broader negotiation theory, which finds that a cooperative approach is the surest path to understanding the other party and discovering new sources of value.

But why must women, and not men, bend over backward to appear likable and communal? Isn’t that unfair? It is, Sandberg admits, but “adhering to biased rules and expectations” is still the clearest path to advancement for most women for the time being.

Here, too, there are signs of change. In addition to motivating women to ask for more, Lean In also appears to be encouraging managers—men and women alike—to look for gender bias in their hiring and promotion practices. Bowles knows of one male executive whose high-tech company was having difficulty recruiting women despite an eagerness to do so.

After absorbing Sandberg’s message, the executive carefully reviewed his company’s recruitment materials and found numerous references (such as to the video game StarCraft) that suggested the company was a “boys’ club.” “He is changing that,” says Bowles.

What challenges do you think females face during negotiations? Share your opinion in the comments.


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Discover how to boost your power at the bargaining table in this FREE special report, Dealmaking: Secrets of Successful Dealmaking in Business Negotiations, from Harvard Law School.

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One Response to “Should Women “Lean In” to Create More Value in Negotiations?”

  • A helpful article. I wish I could have read this 6 years ago. At that time, I was promoted to the next level whereas turned down my request to increase the salary by the Manager and asked to wait 4 months. I was 3 months pregnant at that time and she clearly knew I was running out of options. I found women discrimination against women is the worst.


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