Women and Negotiation

In the companion website for the book Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, we are given some “interesting statistics” that convince us (as if we needed convincing) that women need to do better at asking for raises at work – and/ or negotiating a higher offer when we are beginning a job (see it here: http://www.womendontask.com/stats.html). For me, the most interesting part of their discussion are the metaphors they pull out from their data.  


When asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating, men picked “winning a ballgame” and a “wrestling match,” while women picked “going to the dentist.” What a difference in terms of conceptualization of task, not to mention perceived relative power differentials! Until we can change the game, we have to play the best we can in the one we have, recognizing that there are opportunities to play to our strengths.


It was a revelation to me to realize that negotiation was a good thing.  I spoke with a Career Advisor who said that her job becomes WAY more “fun” when students bring a situation of competing offers to her. I sat there, it all dawning on me slowly “oh, negotiation is a good thing?” For me, that possibility had always felt terrifying, which had resulted in my avoiding it at all costs in the early part of my career.  When there are more women on both sides of the negotiation table, different strategies may become the norm, the default way of conducting such negotiations. Until then, we need to become a bit more aware of the game as it is being played now.  If we can embrace new metaphors, it might allow us to feel in on the game! 

As social science researchers, we are of course very familiar with the double bind for women, as explained in a game of “gender bias bingo” on the Gender Bias Learning project website.  “Women who adhere to traditionally feminine roles meet with benevolent approval—but are not seen as go-getters. Women who don’t adhere to feminine scripts are respected but seen as having personality problems. When this occurs, women are called to task for behavior that is seen as unobjectionable in their male colleagues—sometimes called the “he’s assertive, she’s aggressive” syndrome.” The very same act of asking for a raise can be perceived as positive by a man “he’s looking our for himself” and as negative for a woman, from whom loyalty is expected (subconsciously, and possibly from both the asker and the askee).


So, how do we play this game as women?

From Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, or as you may have seen in her TED Talk, all signs point to focusing on the mechanics of this Speech Act as an opportunity to learn how to negotiate differently. Aware of our styles and expectations, aware of affordances and constraints of the genre and assumptions about women employing indirectness rather than directness, we can craft a request that calls attention to connection, while at the same time asserting our needs. What does this look like?

Ssandberg gives a good example, citing Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, who advocates for a style called being “relentlessly pleasant,” a style which involves frequent expression of appreciation and concern (for the organization, the team, the boss), invoking common interests, emphasizing larger goals, and approaching the negotiation as solving a problem rather than taking a critical stance. Perhaps, a strategic use of “we” might be well-placed to reinforce this positioning of “how can we solve this issue?” Rather than “this is something that I want.”

Of course as discourse analysts, we recognize all these contextualization cues as being involved in setting a frame. We know that aspects like body language and smiling may be recruited to cultivate and reinforce this framing, and we can pay attention for opportunities to redirect the focus of the interaction to be on how it benefits team instead of self. We can also reposition the stance object so that it is the salary and not the employee. And one of the most brilliant insights that Sandberg offers in her book is an absolute gift for framing the encounter! Call direct attention to expectations about women in negotiations as a way to begin the negotiation itself. Meta-communicate!!

 Meta-communication is a great way to reframe

See what you can do to take the perspective of the person on the other side of the table. Know how to hear “no” as “no for now” if they really have to say “no.”

Perhaps there is an opportunity for another conversation, perhaps there are other things that you can ask for besides salary that would be even more valuable in the long run (resources, time off, opportunities for professional development, benefits, staff support, )


Making space for the conversation

Often your boss is not going to go out of his/her way to make space for this conversation – one of the most important things that you can so is ask. Create opportunities for discussing your work with your boss.  Be prepared to recognize conversations as opportunities for feedback on your work.

Also, when you work hard, your work can speak for you, but this is only in concert with your asking – this cannot be the only way that you ask!

ASK!!! Keep asking – and take every advantage to create more contexts for asking. 

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