Negotiating as a Woman: Navigating Gender Stereotypes
A number of years ago, I spent some time working in a senior sales role overseas for a global FMCG business. When I walked into the meeting room for the briefing on our annual sales strategy, you could have heard a pin drop. I was young (and foreign) but I don’t believe it was either of these elements that caused the unease. In a room filled entirely with men, I firmly believe the real issue was that I was female.
That was over 20 years ago and in the words of Bob Dylan ‘Times they are a-changing' but nevertheless I still hear regular tales in the classroom from some of the women we teach about the challenges they face in dealing with gender stereotypes. I hear comments like “I get talked down to, told I’m too nice, too emotional” and occasionally “they won’t even talk business with me when my older, male colleague is around”. Thankfully this ‘time machine’ of attitude from the 1950s is not as common as it was then, but I still hear it and it still exists.
One of the most common stereotypes is that women are less assertive than men. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase "she's too nice" used to describe a woman negotiator. But here's the thing: being nice is not a weakness. In fact, it can be a strength when combined with assertiveness. If nice is another word for collaborative or cooperative then, for a negotiator, that can frankly be turned into a superpower. Collaborative negotiators are more likely to really listen to the other party and thereby get a genuine understanding of their objectives, issues, concerns and constraints as well as picking up nuances of language that might suggest areas of flexibility. That information if used constructively can be turned into a proposal that addresses the needs of both parties and therefore has a likely chance of success.
Collaborative negotiators are more likely to make people feel comfortable sharing information with them, thereby recognizing packaging opportunities when they present themselves. This is invaluable for a negotiator since it often enables a proposal to be simply reshaped rather than increased to get it over the line.
Another stereotype that we face is the idea that women are too emotional and irrational to be effective negotiators...back to that time machine again! Effective preparation with clarity of objectives enables focus on the issues though emotion can be a powerful tool in negotiation if used wisely.
As a female negotiator, I’ve always found two things incredibly useful if faced with navigating the stereotype minefield. Being effectively prepared is crucial. If we’re talking superpowers great preparation is up there in terms of building confidence to deal with whatever challenges the negotiation brings. The second is making proposals. There’s nothing like effective proposals to keep the focus on making progress with the issues and taking focus away from less helpful attitudes or behaviour.
As women, we need to support each other and learn from one another. I have learned from some amazing women (and men) in my career and it can be helpful to seek out someone who has faced similar challenges for guidance and support.
And finally, let's not forget that negotiating as a woman is not just an individual challenge, but a systemic one as well. It's important to advocate for systemic changes that promote gender equality and create a more level playing field for all negotiators, regardless of gender.