Guest Rant: Negotiation and Women: Ask for Others, But Never for Yourself

Over on Conversation Starter, Whitney Johnson opined about how women still face social taboos when they try to negotiate for more salary. She recounts a story of how, early in her career, she countered a $24K offer with $27K and got it (despite a lame argument that this was only $57 per week more, so why was it important?) In retrospect, she decided that this was an anomaly, as she hit much more resistance later on at other organizations. Johnson found out that the social norm is that "nice girls don't ask" for more money. When they do, they are socially penalized in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, such as men not choosing female candidates who tried to negotiate. For women, it's "damned if you do and damned if you don't." As Johnson writes, "When men ask for something, they are being proactive; when women ask, they are being pushy. It's a double standard to be sure, but it's also a double bind -- if we don't ask, we don't get; if we do ask, we may be shunned.”

This made me wonder how women fare when they are not negotiating on behalf of themselves. According to an article in the journal Negotiation, "When Gender Changes the Negotiation," (Vol. 8, No. 11, November 2005) "women perform better when negotiating on behalf of others than they do when negotiating for themselves; no such difference emerges among male negotiators." This suggests that women can be equally effective negotiators in a procurement setting.

On her blog, Denise Brouillette writes about Deborah Kolb, Professor for Women and Leadership at the Simmons Center for Gender in Organizations, and a negotiations authority and author of several books on negotiation. Professor Kolb notes that women face fewer challenges and are often expert negotiators when negotiating on behalf of an organization. She mentions 5 excuses used with women who negotiate on behalf of themselves: "You’re not ready for this level of responsibility." "You’re asking for too much money." "I'm not the one who's making the final decision on this." "If I move you into that job, I'll have no one to take over what you're doing now.” "Why don't you come back to me in a few months from now and we'll talk about it then."

Most women would not be at all surprised by these findings. And I'm certainly one of those women. Early in my career at a large consulting firm I was told that I was too competitive and even unfeminine when standing up for myself in a salary negotiation. Later on at a large electronics firm, where I worked in manufacturing, I was told that I couldn't be given a particular deal because it would wreak havoc if other women found out. Sounds absurd? I’m willing to bet that there are other women out there with more astonishing war stories to tell from the personal negotiations front. This negotiation challenge, which doesn’t seem to have improved much over the years, may be one important reason why women are starting their own companies in disproportionate numbers.

-- Sherry Gordon

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