When women make good agents

By on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “When Does Gender Matter in Negotiation?” by Dina W. Pradel (vice president, Y2M), Hannah Riley Bowles (professor, Harvard Kennedy School), and Kathleen L. Mcginn (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Businesspeople often wonder whether men or women are better negotiators. According to research, gender is not a reliable predictor of negotiation performance; neither women nor men perform better or worse across all negotiations. However, certain types of negotiation can set the stage for differences in outcomes negotiated by men and by women.

When parties understand little about the limits of the bargaining range and appropriate standards for agreement, the ambiguity of a negotiation increases. In highly ambiguous negotiations, it becomes more likely that gender triggers-situational cues that prompt male-female differences in preferences, expectations, and behaviors-will influence negotiation behavior and outcomes. By contrast, in situations with low ambiguity, where negotiators understand the range of possible payoffs and agree on standards for distributing value, outcomes are less likely to reflect gender triggers. Some environments are full of triggers that encourage superior performance by women, while others are full of triggers that encourage superior performance by men. Rather than indicating innate differences between men and women, these triggers reflect stereotypes and long-standing behavioral biases.

One gender trigger that may favor women over men is playing the role of agent (advocating for others) as opposed to playing the role of principal (advocating for themselves). Research by Dina W. Pradel, Hannah Riley Bowles, and Kathleen L. McGinn, and Linda Babcock suggests that women perform better when negotiating on behalf of others than they do when negotiating for themselves; no such difference emerges among male negotiators.

The researchers asked a large group of executives to negotiate compensation for an internal candidate for a new management position. Half negotiated as the candidate; the other half negotiated as the candidate’s mentor. The negotiators were given no reference points or standards for agreement, creating a highly ambiguous negotiation. Female executives negotiating as the mentor secured compensation that was 18% higher than the compensation female executives negotiated when they were playing the candidate. Meanwhile, male executives performed consistently across both roles, at the level of female executives negotiating as the candidate.

It’s not that the female participants felt less entitled to a good salary. Prior to the negotiation, women reported salary expectations similar to those of their male counterparts. Nor were women more or less competent at the negotiation itself. Rather, it appears that the women executives were particularly energized when they felt a sense of responsibility to represent another person’s interests. Just as men excel in ambiguous, competitive environments, women are exemplary negotiators when the beneficiary is someone other than themselves.

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