Women negotiators: Focus on power and status

New research identifies effective ways to reduce the negotiation gender gap.

By — on / Negotiation Briefings Articles

The women are taking over,” Senator John McCain joked several times during October meetings of a bipartisan Senate group working on a deal to end the government shutdown, the New York Times reports. Republican female senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayotte convened the 13-member group, which was roughly evenly split across gender lines despite the fact that women make up only 20% of the Senate.

Women senators took a leading role in building the deal framework that ended the standoff and averted a U.S. debt default. By contrast, negotiation research has found that women are often hesitant about initiating negotiations and achieve less than men at the bargaining table, at least when they are negotiating on their own behalf.

In addition to the fact that the women senators were negotiating on behalf of their constituents, there was a key difference between these women who negotiated during the shutdown crisis and the college and graduate students who typically participate in negotiation research studies: their power and status. This difference prompts the question of whether power and status could enhance women’s performance in negotiation. Two new studies published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research suggest the answer may be yes.

A powerful prime
Women may be less likely than men to advocate for themselves via negotiation, but they perform at least as well as men when they are negotiating on behalf of others, such as their subordinates, research has found. These differences in how men and women negotiate are often attributed to gender differences in socialization. Boys are generally raised to be assertive and self-
focused, traits that serve grown men well when it comes time to forge a professional path. By contrast, girls are typically socialized to be communal and nurturing—traits that clash with the motivation to claim value for oneself in negotiation.

Given that a sense of power has been found to trigger personality traits such as dominance and assertiveness, researchers Alain P. C. I. Hong and Per J. van der Wijst of Tilburg University in the Netherlands conducted an experiment to determine whether encouraging women to feel powerful would lead them to be more competitive and achieve better outcomes for themselves in a subsequent negotiation.

The Dutch university students who participated in the study each engaged in a negotiation simulation with researcher Hong, who posed as a participant. Before negotiating, some participants were primed to feel powerful by recalling and writing about an incident from their lives in which they had power over one or more people. By contrast, those in the control condition were simply asked to write about how they usually spend their evenings.

During the negotiations that followed, Hong, playing the role of home seller, asked each participant, playing a home buyer, to make a first price offer for his house. Hong then drove a hard bargain, challenging each offer the participants made and the rationales behind them. The negotiation concluded when the participants made their final offers.

The results showed that women who were primed to feel powerful made much more aggressive first offers and negotiated better outcomes for themselves than the women in the control condition did. The performance of the high-power women matched that of men in both conditions. Men reached similar outcomes whether or not they were primed to feel powerful.

The results suggest that women (but not men) receive a real psychological lift from feeling powerful that motivates them to negotiate more forcefully for themselves, at least in distributive negotiations where parties are haggling over a single issue, such as price. The findings imply that women in low-power positions may be able to improve their negotiation performance simply by reflecting on a time when they had more power or even, research by Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy suggests, striking powerful, expansive poses prior to negotiation.

Beyond the backlash
A sense of power may enable women to negotiate more assertively, but what happens next? Past negotiation research has found that women (but not men) who initiate negotiations over their compensation suffer a backlash: People are less willing to work with them than with women who don’t ask for more money, Hannah Riley Bowles of the Harvard Kennedy School, Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University, and Lei Lai of Tulane University found in one study. Women are often reluctant to advocate for themselves at work because they anticipate such a backlash.

Researchers have speculated that women trigger a backlash when they behave contrary to stereotypes of women as accommodating and communal. In a new study, professors Emily T. Amanatullah of the University of Texas at Austin and Catherine H. Tinsley of Georgetown University examine an alternative explanation for the backlash effect—namely, the low status often ascribed to women—and find that it can be overcome.

Consider that traditionally, women have held lower-status positions in society relative to men, as reflected in job titles and earnings. Consequently, when people lack information about a woman’s status, they tend to assume it is relatively low. When women of presumed low status behave as if their status is high, people are likely to react negatively and punish them, Amanatullah and Tinsley theorized.

In their first experiment, the researchers asked participants to imagine that they were a hotel manager dealing with an event planner named Chris. Chris asked to cancel some rooms and receive a refund soon before an event, a favor that would violate the hotel’s policy. Participants were asked whether they would grant the request or not. Chris was presented as either a man or a woman, and as having low status (“newly hired junior officer”) or high status (“executive vice president”).

Chris was least likely to get the refund when she was a low-status female; she suffered a financial backlash for asking for the favor. By contrast, high-status female Chris was significantly more likely to receive the favor, as were men in both status conditions. (Male low-status Chris did not experience a backlash.)

In a similar, second experiment, Amanatullah and Tinsley found that participants viewed the request of a low-status woman—but not that of a low-status man—to be illegitimate, leading to a wave of negative reactions: In addition to having her financial request rejected, the woman was deemed undesirable as a potential colleague, friend, and leader. By contrast, participants viewed high-status women’s requests to be legitimate and did not penalize them on any of these dimensions.

Past research concluded that all women risk a backlash when advocating for themselves in negotiation. By contrast, the results of this study suggest that high-status women may be immune to this effect. Therefore, women may benefit from signaling high status when initiating and engaging in negotiations. Those who lack an impressive title may be able to communicate status by displaying awards, referring to their most impressive credentials, and associating with high-level colleagues, Amanatullah and Tinsley suggest.

Overall, the results of the studies described here imply that women negotiators can claim more value by reflecting on past experiences with power and communicating high status.

•“ Women in Negotiation: Effects of Gender and Power on Negotiation Behavior,” by Alain P. C. I. Hong and Per J. van der Wijst. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 2013.

• “ Ask and Ye Shall Receive? How Gender and Status Moderate Negotiation Success,” by Emily T. Amanatullah and Catherine H. Tinsley. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 2013.

4 other ways to help women negotiators advance

1. Focus on skills. Women may be able to gain confidence and overcome insidious stereotypes by viewing negotiation skill as something that can be improved through practice—which it is—rather than as a stable personality trait.

2. Emphasize communal skills. When advocating for themselves, women can avoid a backlash by stressing that they will negotiate just as assertively for the organization, according to negotiation researchers Hannah Riley Bowles and Linda Babcock.

3. Open doors. Organizations should actively connect women negotiators with high-status colleagues to help them access career opportunities that previously were closed to them.

4. Increase objectivity. To lessen gender bias in their organizations, managers can institute salary benchmarks based on objective performance measures.

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