Q&A: Gender in negotiations


Q&A with Dr. Bobbi Thomason, Senior Fellow and Negotiations Lecturer at the Wharton School. Thomason worked in consulting before pursuing her Ph.D and worked with clients on high-stakes negotiations.

RK: Why should women in particular care about negotiation skills?

BT: I think that everyone should care about negotiation skills, since we are all negotiating all the time. In terms of women in particular, the narrative that women don’t negotiate, or don’t negotiate well, is bogus. Research has found, for example, women even outperform men in certain negotiation scenarios, including when they negotiate on behalf of others and depending on the negotiation topic. In my own research on career negotiations, my collaborators and I found that women negotiate all the time across a range of topics and excel at it. Our data documents that women, as well as men, don’t just negotiate during initial job setups, but also negotiate for things like flexible working terms or placement into specific roles or initiatives. Negotiation is not just a tool for getting higher compensation, but also for making work more meaningful, engaging, sustainable, and intellectually stimulating. Negotiation can also be used to obtain leadership positions or to accommodate areas outside of work.  

RK: Should women think differently about negotiating than men?

BT: Combined groups of studies show that whether a negotiator is a man or a woman is a poor predictor of how he or she will perform across different negotiating situations. However, there can be certain gender triggers that make gender differences in negotiation outcomes more likely. One trigger is ambiguity. In situations when it’s unclear, for example, what the norms of negotiation are or what the range of the possible agreement is, parties rely more on stereotypes. Women are stereotyped, more so than men, to be modest and to put others ahead of themselves. This stereotype impacts negotiations, because when women self-advocate in negotiations, they tend to be perceived as socially unattractive, and evaluators report a disinclination to work with them. Studies have found women are less likely than men to self-advocate if it is unclear that negotiation is allowed or appropriate.

So, I recommend women prepare and research in advance by reaching out of convenience networks and gathering data on what is negotiable and what possible objective standards and precedents may exist.

Another potential trigger is if women negotiate for themselves or on behalf of others. Women tend to be very effective when negotiating on behalf of others, and in many cases outperform men using this approach, in part because negotiating for others is in line with stereotypes about women.

Gender stereotypes impact men in negotiation, too. In some of my research, we found that men expressed less comfort negotiating for work-life balance, such as ability to work flexible hours, work at home some days, or complete a project outside of typical work schedule. Both men and women are constrained in counter-stereotypical negotiations. Just as self-advocating may be counter-stereotypical for women, negotiating work-life balance is counter-stereotypical for men.

RK: What differences have you observed in the negotiating styles of women and men in your classes?

BT: I actually have not observed a consistent difference. Men and women both negotiate collaboratively at times and more competitively at other times. It’s important to think about negotiations as not being “cookie-cutter” and consider how we all adjust our negotiation style to be authentic in different situations. One commonality I have observed in my classes is that both men and women in my classes have shown that they can relate to gendered negotiation challenges and care about women’s experiences, showing both engagement in and curiosity about gender topics in class.

RK: What advice do you have for female negotiators to maximize their effectiveness?

BT: Best practice negotiating advice for women may be very salient for women, but it is generally good negotiation advice for both men and women. One of my favorite pieces of advice is mentioned in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. Sandberg calls it the “I-We” strategy, a way of negotiating for yourself in “we” terms. When asking for project resources, instead of saying “I need a budget of X,” it may help to frame the request as “my team needs these resources to execute this project well for the company.” The same studies have also shown is that it helps for women to connect to objective, reasonable standards and frame the discussion in terms of “we.”


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