Play the right game

Play the right game

Women negotiating to improve their economic position are hindered by the pervasive effects of gender stereotypes.

Despite the implementation of equal-opportunity policies, women continue to earn lower salaries than men. Surveys tracking the salaries of MBA graduates, both overseas and in Australia, show a startling gender gap. Female graduates' starting salaries are 6 per cent lower and their guaranteed bonuses are 19 per cent lower than those of their male peers. The gender wage gap is a problem for women in all occupations. Both women and their employers are financially disadvantaged by inequities in salary. For women, the costs can be counted in terms of accumulated wealth over their careers as well as in career progression. For organisations, one cost of gender inequity is increased turnover. Some experts estimate that labour turnover costs for employers range from 30 to 150 per cent of an employee's annual salary.

A common assumption is that women are paid less because they adopt a softer negotiating style. Yet women who display a "tougher" negotiating style to improve their salary are caught in a Catch-22. The characteristics associated with effective negotiating overlap with stereotypical male attributes.

Women who engage in these behaviours may be seen as effective negotiators, but at what cost? Violating gender stereotypes has far reaching yet subtle consequences in the workplace.

Women who display counter-stereotypical behaviours are perceived as less likeable, receive poorer performance appraisals and may experience personal derogation.

Women who adopt a tougher negotiation style may improve their salary but damage their organisational relationships. Improved results require women to influence and persuade the other party to accept their point of view. Yet we are most likely to be influenced by people we like, and women who adopt the strategies associated with effective negotiating are perceived as less likeable.

All negotiators need to identify their best and worst results. Women set lower targets than men. Their predictions about starting salaries are up to 32 per cent lower than men's predictions, and their predictions about career peak salaries are 23 to 54 per cent lower. This constrains women's perceptions of what is possible.

Everyone describes a "moment of anxiety" in anticipation of negotiating. Women are less likely to push past this moment of discomfort than men. Just asking can increase an initial salary offer by about 7.5 per cent. However, women are more likely to accept the first offer they receive, and they receive less generous offers than men.

When the other party is tough, focused on asserting power or on undermining the negotiating relationship through personal attacks, negotiations can flounder. Again, men are more likely than women to persist and try to work through these tactics.

A key to staying in the negotiation and improving outcomes is to learn to "turn" the negotiation process.

Turns, identified by Deborah Kolb at Harvard Business School, are strategies that challenge the use of these tactics and redirect negotiations to a more productive process. An interruption is one example of a turn. Using interruptions disrupts the momentum of game-playing and tactics, allowing negotiators to change their strategy.

A benefit of the turns described by Kolb is that they harness and use gender stereotypes to women's advantage. When effective negotiation is associated with female stereotypes, women outperform men.

Turning the negotiation introduces behaviours and strategies that centre on problem-solving and relationship-building - behaviours that are congruent

with female stereotypes.

Women don't need to "get tough" to do well. Because the ability to influence increases with likeability, women who work within stereotypes will more effectively persuade their opponents. By learning to turn the negotiation to problem-solving, they will activate a stereotype of effective negotiation that is gender-congruent and will accrue both social and economic benefits. BRW

Mara Olekalns is Professor of Management (Negotiation) and co-ordinator of the Women and Management Series workshops at Melbourne Business School.

©Fairfax Business Media

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