Women’s natural tendencies to nurture could be contributing to their downfall in the workplace, particularly when it comes to negotiating. But simply acting more masculine isn’t the answer, according to the experts.
One explanation, however, might be found in a phenomenon researchers have coined “shadow negotiations.” It mostly effects women and refers to the parallel negotiation wherein unspoken attitudes, stereotypes, power relations and expectations play out as people bargain. It can happen in every negotiation from salaries to venture capital funding and, many times, women catch themselves negotiating for their adversaries.
Shadow negotiations are largely a women’s issue, says Lee E. Miller, a career coach and co-author of “A Woman’s Guide to Successful Negotiating.” Women’s biggest downfall is talking themselves into negotiating for the other side, he says.
“Women are worried about what the other side thinks and feels about them if they take a too-aggressive position,” he says.
Another reason many women fall prey to the shadow negotiation is because it’s not natural for them to assert their needs, says Kimberly Elsbach, professor of Organizational Behavior at the UC Davis School of Management. “Women are often in positions of supporters and nurturers, always putting their families’ needs ahead of their own,” she says.
This assertion is only partially true, says Lois Frankel, author of “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.” Women won’t assert themselves when it comes to their own needs. However, they step up their game when it comes to advocating for others, such as their children or even others in the office.
“So it really comes down to women not wanting to appear greedy or pushy about what they want for themselves. And some studies support that, when they do negotiate strongly for themselves, they are seen in a more negative light than a man who negotiates similarly,” says Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International in Pasadena.
Various studies from Princeton, MIT and Harvard found that women who adopt more masculine traits are often respected but not liked. Self-promoting behavior that appears self-confident or entrepreneurial in men often looks pushy in women, and “such stereotypes are often working below the surface of consciousness,” according to research from Simmons School of Management in Boston.
It isn’t wise for women to act like men to get what they want, because there are different social rules that dictate male and female behavior, Frankel says.
“We don’t like women who act like men, nor do we like men who act like women,” she says. “It creates cognitive dissonance that makes others uncomfortable.”
So how do they differ? Men tend to focus on the outcome of a negotiation and getting the best deal in the transaction, while women tend to focus on the relationship with the negotiator and getting a fair deal. One way to overcome this hurdle without being pushy is through a concept called anchoring. Instead of starting your negotiation at a fair deal, think strategically about your starting point and define the best possible outcome, Miller says.
“Women basically start negotiations at the end of where they think is fair. Then, they end up with much less than that. By the time negotiations start, they’ve already played it out in their head. If you start your negotiation at the best possible outcome, you’re likely to end up with a fair deal. If you start with a fair deal, you’re likely to get less than fair and even closer to a minimum you’re willing to accept. That’s what the shadow negotiation is; you kind of talk yourself down.”
Frankel agrees that women fall short in negotiations when they are looking to play fair and focus on the relationship rather than secure a good outcome.
“The first approach assumes the other person is going to take as good care of you as you are going to take care of them, which is not usually the case in negotiations,” she says.
There are psychological twists and turns when parties are trying to reach an agreement. Negotiators often use passive-aggressive tactics — the humorous put-down, the insulting joke — to control the negotiation or test boundaries, says Yasmin Davidds, founder and CEO of the Women’s Institute of Negotiation, which offers leadership and negotiation training. At the heart of every shadow negotiation is a tactic or technique to challenge the other party’s legitimacy, she says.
“You cannot avoid shadow negotiation tactics; you can only identify them and counter them,” says Davidds, author of the upcoming book, “Own Your Game: How Women Can Negotiate with Power and Grace to Level the Playing Field.”
Start by doing your homework. Prepare for and research the other parties. It’s also important to set parameters before the negotiation, Elsbach says, such as how candid you’re going to be.
“I would want to know if my opponent has negotiated with others before and ask about his or her style and approach. Did past negotiators find out later that your opponent lied, withheld information or used deceit? If you know this is the game the person plays, you can be more prepared for it.”
You can’t just walk in and expect to walk away with what you want, deserve or need, Frankel says. You need data to support your argument.
“Facts are friendly,” Frankel says. “Preparation also includes researching the other person’s needs, knowing what they will want and coming to the negotiation with creative ways to ensure both of you walk away feeling successful.”
Finding that balance in the end can be tricky. In every negotiation, power shifts back and forth between the parties, Davidds says, depending on the skill of the negotiator and perceived leverage of the other side. Whatever happens, don’t let a competitive negotiator lower your expectations. A negotiator can seek to gain power by making the other side irrelevant or less important by pushing off meetings and missing phone calls.
“The dismissive tactic makes the receiver question themselves, their worth, the value they offer and, therefore, price,” Davidds says. “It begins to weaken the receiver’s confidence in themselves and lowers their expectations about their worth overall.”
The Venture Mystique
Early-stage capital and the shadow negotiation
In recent years, researchers have shifted their focus away from behavioral comparisons of how men and women conduct business, recognizing that when females adopt male traits, those behaviors do not result in gender-equal outcomes. Instead, researchers have begun to examine the playing fields on which women are consistently losing. Venture funding tops that list.
Women own nearly 30 percent of private companies in the U.S. but only 3 to 5 percent land a venture deal. One could argue that women are scarce in commonly funded sectors, such as high-tech. But researchers have found that the answer is more complex when female entrepreneurs attempt to tap a male-dominated venture market.
When women prepare their pitches, they have a set of assumptions and stereotypes they’ve made about investors. For example, one Simmons School of Management study says: “In Boston, VCs are more like bankers, everyone’s calculators hit the table right away. In Silicon Valley they will talk about the idea for a long time.” And when VCs sit down to hear a business pitch, they have their own set of hidden assumptions, stereotypes, power plays and expectations that go unspoken and may even be subconscious. Misunderstanding these shadow negotiations can mean the difference between funding and floundering for an entrepreneur, especially a female.
Researchers at the Simmons School of Management in Boston found that women often undervalue market opportunity when they’re pitching their businesses. Venture capitalists want to hear the best possible scenario, but a woman often throws out one that she deems more reasonable. As one female entrepreneur interviewed for the study put it: “Part of the formula is to peacock about the scale and potential value of the business.”
Women tend to peddle goods and services for the home or consumers, rather than highly technical business-to-business products. As such, entrepreneurs in the Simmons study tried relating their products to the daily lives of the VCs, and found it was hard to connect on a personal level. One female entrepreneur was trying to push a personalized product for 40-something women and found that many VCs were onto their second, younger wives and had no reference points for the needs of 40-something women. Another tried to pitch a product targeting working women and found that the wives and daughters of VCs generally don’t work.
The Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire has found that homophily, the idea that people naturally favor others like them, plays a role in angel funding among women. The Simmons study found the same biases existed, even if subconsciously, among male VCs. In order to gain credibility with investors, many women felt the need to employ the “pair-of-pants” strategy, which involves bringing a man with her to meetings or hiring one for a high-profile role in her company. As one woman put it: “I had to have a man lead the company, at least in presence and name only.”
In terms of credentials, investors think less of a woman without a technical degree, according to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Having a technical degree can level the playing field for men and women trying to land funding. However, merely having a business degree can lower a woman’s rating with VCs, while raising it for a male entrepreneur.
He’s the boss, she’s bossy. He’s assertive, she’s domineering. He strategizes, she schemes. He’s powerful and likeable, she’s powerful or likeable.
For women who fear facing financial or career penalties while parenting, it is important to be proactive. As with all career goals, the key is setting realistic expectations and communicating them effectively to others.