When the Sexes Face Off

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Battles of the Sexes,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

What happens when men and women compete with one another for scarce resources? In a fascinating series of studies, Professor Laura Kray of the University of California at Berkeley and her colleagues show that gender stereotypes have unexpected effects on the behavior of pairs of male and female negotiators.

In one experiment, Kray and professors Leigh Thompson and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University had pairs of male and female MBA students square off in a negotiation simulation in which the goal was to claim as much value as possible for oneself. Some of the pairs were told the task was simply a learning tool that would not reflect their negotiating ability. Other pairs were told their performance would provide an accurate gauge of their negotiating abilities and limitations.

Women claimed just as much value as their male counterparts when they believed the task was a learning tool. Yet women performed worse than men when they believed their performance reflected their abilities. Under this latter condition, men seemed energized by the opportunity to compete, while women seemed to choke.

For both men and women, simply mentioning variations in negotiating ability triggered the stereotype that women are worse negotiators than men and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to the researchers. The mere knowledge that negative stereotypes exist about us can impair our performance, a phenomenon that Stanford professor Claude Steele calls stereotype threat.

By looking at negotiation as a learning opportunity rather than as a performance, women can gain the confidence needed to overcome insidious stereotypes.

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