More than we bargained for: does gender matter in negotiation?

Does gender matter in negotiation?Chances are pretty good that if you live in the U.S. and own a TV, you’ve probably seen the Kia commercial which depicts a husband and wife’s visit to a car dealership.

The husband is seated inside a minivan with the salesman, while his wife stands outside several yards away, watching intently but unable to hear the conversation. As the husband motions with his hands in a forceful, assertive way, he says to the car salesman, “I need to gesture aggressively with my hands so my wife thinks I’m really working you over.”

The point seems to be that Kia’s prices are so low that there’s no need to negotiate. But as a result this means that the husband must pretend to hard-bargain as a face-saving measure so his wife thinks that it was his tough negotiating style that got them the great deal.

You don’t need to be a Freudian psychologist or a radical feminist to divine the meaning of messages popular culture delivers regarding negotiation, or the ways in which it reinforces the differences—perceived or real—between men and women in negotiating behavior.

The type of negotiating we see in this ad is what pop culture typically depicts—competitive, winner-take-all, zero-sum bargaining, rather than the interest-based, value-creating, win/win negotiation promoted by ADR practitioners.

It’s hard to miss the fact that the negotiation, such as it is, takes place between two men, while predictably the woman remains on the sidelines (with the baby stroller). The message is clear: negotiation is a man’s job. And anything besides hard (racy pun intended) bargaining just isn’t manly. (Interest-based negotiation is for girly-men.)

Normally I tend to tune ads out (in fact, in my opinion, it’s why the “mute” button on the TV remote control was invented). But this ad caught my attention because of several articles I just finished reading on negotiation, which I invite you to ponder.

The first of these is “Legal Negotiation in Popular Culture: What Are We Bargaining For?”, by Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Director of the Georgetown-Hewlett Program in Conflict Resolution and Legal Problem Solving at Georgetown University Law Center.

This article, although not focusing on gender, explores the ways in which popular culture depicts legal negotiation and what these depictions reveal about our culture, including its consumers and creators. (Unsurprisingly legal negotiations are usually portrayed as high-conflict, win-lose battles between adversaries, rather than as creative, value-creating processes which result in greater gain for all participants.) It’s a well-crafted deconstruction of popular culture’s formulaic representations of negotiations in legal contexts.

Another article, “The Womanly Art of Negotiation”, written under a pseudonym, appeared last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It recounts the difficulties in negotiating for an academic position while a) female and b) pregnant. It offers thoughts on factors preventing women from being fully effective negotiators, including a tendency to believe that “nice girls don’t demand money”. (Something which this nice girl has never had trouble doing.)

So, are men in fact better negotiators than women? What difference does gender make to the ability to negotiate successfully?

A third article considers these questions. According to Hannah Riley, the author of “When Does Gender Matter in Negotiation? Implications for Public Leadership” (PDF), while it is difficult (and even unwise) to make generalizations about negotiating behavior on the basis of gender alone, her own studies and observations reflect the fact that at the very least women may approach negotiation differently from men.

The effects of gender, according to her theory,

depend systematically on two situational factors: structural ambiguity and gender triggers. Structural ambiguity refers to the clarity of information about the bargaining range and appropriate standards for agreement. With increased ambiguity, parties have to rely more on subjective assessments of the negotiating situation…

In studies of competitive bargaining…I found that when structural ambiguity was high, male negotiators had more optimistic expectations and negotiated higher payoffs than did females in mixed-gender pairs. When ambiguity was low, gender differences faded away.

What Riley also discovered was that when women believed that they were negotiating on behalf of someone else, they tended to ask for more than if they were bargaining for themselves. Riley observed that “The results suggest that the women did not lack confidence in their competitive bargaining ability, but rather felt inhibited about demanding value for themselves.”

Available online for downloading is “Gender as a Situational Phenomenon in Negotiation”, the complete report of the study Riley conducted together with Linda Babcock examining the impact of gender on behavior in and outcomes of negotiation.

Finally, for more information and statistics on gender and negotiation, visit the web site for Women Don’t Ask, the book Babcock authored with Sara Laschever, which discusses negotiation’s gender gap, identifies the challenges women face, and proposes some solutions.

Comments are closed.