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Business and Finance

Female power and the art of negotiation

Niamh Corbett
Women's reluctance to negotiate has translated into some alarming statistics, says a steering member of the 30% Club

The advert for the BBC series The White Queen proclaims “Men go to battle. Women wage war”. As apt as that may have been for Elizabeth and her medieval kin, does it still hold true in today’s world – particularly in the boardroom? And, if so, what does that mean for how we negotiate?

Much has been written about the burgeoning shift from male to female values in business, but the boardroom remains an overwhelmingly male domain. On average, FTSE 100 companies have only 17.4% female representation on their boards, up from 12.5% in 2010 (prior to Lord Davies’ report). The FTSE 250 paints a bleaker picture still, with only 13.8% women directors, up from 7.8% in 2010. Momentum is building, but there’s a long way to go before we reach parity.

That said, the financial crisis has triggered a period of soul searching about the prevalent business culture, and this openness to change has catalysed a new power. Those who possess traditionally ‘feminine’ leadership traits (collaboration, listening, empathy) are set to rise to the top of their domains. Women are wired in a way that gives them a profound advantage in a world built on networks.

Howard over Heidi

This ascendancy has not yet translated into greater power, largely because of entrenched gender stereotypes. Femininity might be a bonus for women in business – but behaviour that’s seen as falling outside of this relatively narrow category isn’t embraced quite so warmly. 

The Howard/Heidi case study has become an infamous illustration of inherent gender bias. In 2003, two professors from New York University and Colombia Business School, Cameron Anderson and Frank Flynn, ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.  They took a real life Harvard Business School case study about a venture capitalist called Heidi Roizen, who became very successful by using her “outgoing personality…and vast personal and professional network”. 

The professors assigned half of their students to read Heidi’s story, and gave the other half the story with just one subtle difference – they changed Heidi’s name to Howard. When polled about their impressions of Heidi and Howard, the students rated both as equally competent, but when asked who they would prefer to work for, Howard was almost universally seen to be a more appealing colleague.Heidi was seen as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for”. The same data with a single difference created vastly different impressions.

The Howard/Heidi experiment is just one in a string of similar examples, and supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.

Negotiating the minefield

When it comes to negotiating, women have a cultural minefield of gender expectations to navigate. By and large, men negotiate more than women. They are expected to advocate on their own behalf, and there is often little downside for them in doing so. When a woman negotiates on her own behalf, she violates a perceived gender norm. 

As trivial as it sounds, pronouns matter. Studies have shown that women who take a more instrumental ‘I’ approach when negotiating (“I want, I deserve, I need”) face a far more negative reaction that those who use communal words (‘we’, ‘our’, ‘the team’). Tone also plays a role. Men are often seen as ‘robust’ when negotiating. A woman taking the same approach is considered passive aggressive. Communal tactics are often not enough; women are also expected to provide a legitimate explanation for their negotiation, for example by citing industry standards (“My understanding is that this kind of job is compensated in X range”).

Negotiating does not come easily to many women, who readily admit that they would rather not ‘rock the boat’. Even Sheryl Sandberg admitted that her husband made her go back and renegotiate her starting salary before she joined Facebook. But this reluctance to negotiate has translated into some alarming statistics.

Bonus inequality

The Chartered Management Institute’s annual Gender Salary Survey for 2013, released in August, has uncovered that the existing gender pay gap (which on average stands at £10,060) is being aggravated further by a 50% bonus pay gap, and women still earn 14.9% less on average than men for the same job. Men are eight times more likely than women to negotiate their starting salary, and this inherent lack of equality is causing a drain of female talent at all levels of business.

Developing the executive pipeline of women is the key to sustainable change in business culture, and in order to do that, business desperately needs to retain female talent. If women are given the space to negotiate, and inherent gender biases are set aside, we could see the start of a permanent shift in culture for the better. 

Niamh Corbett is a Steering Committee member of the 30% Club. Follow her on Twitter at @CorbettNiamh. Image credit: CC Flazingo.

Men are eight times more likely than women to negotiate their starting salary, and this inherent lack of equality is causing a drain of female talent at all levels

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