Closing the Gender Gap in Negotiations

Almost every action a leader takes in business today requires expertise in negotiating.  That is likely why conventional wisdom tells us great leaders are good negotiators. Certainly, getting better at it means improving the organization’s bottom line, if not advancing your career objectives. That stated, what you can do to improve your winning percentage may well depend on your gender – simply because men and women negotiate quite differently.

An exhaustive literature review and Internet survey  (conducted as a research assignment by a gender-neutral group of ten investigators) reveals some noteworthy contrasting behavioural traits and tendencies between the sexes – differences that clearly impact their approaches to and thus their effectiveness at the bargaining table. While these differing styles and attributes don’t apply universally to all men and women, they generally apply to most. And they are instructive, especially when you reflect on your own personal experiences and proclivities.

For example, since negotiating is fundamentally an art of discovery,  an important vehicle to success lies in one’s ability to interrogate the other party. In this regard, women are far more willing to openly ask questions to gain needed information than are men who are less inclined to do so, particularly in settings that might reveal a lack of knowledge. Women spend more time preparing for negotiations and often over-prepare so they won’t look foolish. Conversely, men tend to “wing it.” Apart from detesting the minutiae of planning, many men view the process as essentially free-wheeling and thus prefer to appear spontaneous.

Women are generally better listeners, focussing more on the specific words,  intonation and non-verbal gestures. Male listening is impaired by an impatience to get into the conversation and a tendency to focus on their own positions before considering those of the other party. For women, the relationship is the most important outcome; for men, it’s winning (regardless of what his adversary may achieve). Women focus more on the process than on the content and use empathy to establish trust; men use rapport largely to gain advantage and achieve results.

If the early conclusion is that feminine skills are more effective in a negotiation, guess again.  One gender views negotiations as mostly cooperative; the other sees it as largely competitive. The truth favours the latter. Unlike women, men neither fear nor internalize conflict which is an essential part of every negotiation. They not only use it, they encourage it as a way of building the tension necessary to accomplish their objectives. Tactics, after all, are stress inducing devices. Aggression and anger are deemed an acceptable part of bargaining. Not so for women as such behaviours are often characterized negatively.

In a negotiation, where tell-tale signals are purposefully disguised,
  a female’s fundamental grasp of the nuances of body language can be a game changer.On tests aimed at determining proficiency in detecting non-verbal cues, women on average score 87 percent. Male accuracy, again on average, is less than half that (with those working in nurturing or artistic professions ranking slightly higher). This awareness is confirmed by neuroscience – women utilize some 14 to 16 areas of the brain to evaluate others’ behaviour whereas men have only about 4 to 6 neurotransmitters that do likewise. Similarly women view direct eye contact as a way of making an empathic connection; men see it as a sign of aggression.

These comparisons only scratch the surface of the telling differences in negotiating styles  – numerous others could be noted. The central argument is that these contrasting behaviours are as much about sociobiology – the study of how behaviour is explained by genes and evolution – as it is skills. It’s not about being better or worse, although some might conclude that. We’re just different from one another.

My own research and repeated observations over four decades confirm a long-held suspicion that women do possess superior negotiating skills but generally lack confidence in their execution.

The foundation of competence lies in our inner comfort and confidence.  Yet numerous studies indicate that two and a half times more women than men feel “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiating. When asked to describe the process metaphorically, men view it as a “ball game” or a “wrestling match.” Whereas women choose phrases like “going to the dentist.”

Women are more pessimistic about what they can achieve via negotiations  and thus typically ask for and get less – on average, about 30 percent less than men. One study calculated that women who consistently negotiate their salaries earn at least $1 million more during their careers. Twenty per cent of women say they “never” negotiate even when they see it as appropriate or necessary. Conversely, on average, men initiate negotiations four times as often as women – for males, everything appears “negotiable.”

Men and women perceive the same world through different eyes.  Male awareness is concerned with getting results, achieving goals, status and power, beating the competition and efficiency. Female awareness tends to be more focused on communication, cooperation, harmony, sharing and relationships. The contrast is so great that it’s amazing men and women even consider living together – which might explain why the de facto divorce rate is around 70 percent.

Women value relationships; men value work.  If a woman is unhappy in her relationships, she often cannot concentrate on her work. If a man is unhappy about his work, he more often can’t focus on his relationships. An overly emotional man can lash out like a reptile; an emotional woman prefers to “talk about it.” Men hate criticism and hide their emotions – becoming emotional is viewed as being “out of control.” Social conditioning – “act like a man” – serves to reinforces these behaviours. A woman’s brain is pre-wired to be open, trusting, show vulnerability and reveal emotions. By nature, a man is more likely to be suspicious, controlled, defensive and a loner.

Understanding these differences can make us better negotiators.  And, if women do innately possess the superior traits for success at the negotiating table, as posited, then they need to be more aware of, better appreciate and thus enabled to utilize these innate talents. Men, on the other hand, as good as they think they are – an attitude that, in itself, can make all the difference in winning – must be mindful of their limitations and seek to address them.