In the past two decades, a barrage of books, magazines, and advertisements for executive education have offered instruction on how to improve your negotiation skills. Popular negotiation guides have sold millions of copies, and hundreds of academic papers have explored the tactics and strategies that produce better agreements.
Until now, however, one point has been almost universally overlooked: All the negotiation advice in the world is useless if you never get to the bargaining table in the first place.
No one has looked at how people know what they can ask for—what’s negotiable—and what is not. No one has studied the factors that constrain or encourage people to negotiate, or whether different groups of people, such as men or women, attempt to negotiate more often than others.
Our new book, Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation--and Positive Strategies for Change, shows for the first time that women are much less likely than men to use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want. With several new studies—some in the lab, some on the street, and some over the web—we’ve confirmed the truth of this assumption. One study looked at students graduating with master’s degrees and found that only 7 percent of the women had negotiated their first job offers, while 57 percent—or eight times as many—of the men asked for more than they were offered. We calculated that not negotiating at this critical juncture would cost the women at least $1,000,000 by the time they retire. And these are the lost earnings from only one negotiation!
Women are also less likely than men to ask for promotions and for assignments that will give them greater visibility within their organizations or provide needed experience. As a result, they often move up in their organizations more slowly—and get paid less—than men of equal talent. The same phenomenon occurs at home: Women don’t ask for more help with household chores, and consequently have less leisure time than men and often higher levels of stress, which can damage their health.
Four Negotiation Strategies
Fortunately, this reluctance to negotiate isn’t genetic. It’s a learned behavior produced by the lessons women internalize as they’re growing up about our society’s boundaries for acceptable female behavior. But because the reluctance to negotiate is a learned behavior, it can also be unlearned—in many cases quite easily. Here are four strategies that can help:
1. Don’t assume that you’re stuck with the status quo.
Begin thinking about the world as a more negotiable place. Can you get a better price on that Armani suit you’ve had your eye on? Can you ask your boss to let you join a team doing work you want to do? Can you ask to switch to a quieter office or to hand off responsibilities that feel beneath your level of experience? At home, can you ask your partner to leave work early to pick up the kids one day a week so that you can work late that day? Can you ask him (or her) to do the dishes every night since you do all the grocery shopping? Not all of these changes are possible, but some of them probably are. Try identifying something you want, maybe something small to start, and find a way to ask for it. You may not get all you ask for, but you’ll certainly get more than if you hadn’t asked.
2. Gather information.
You may not realize that you’re underpaid relative to your male colleagues, for example. Start by finding out where you stand. Go to Internet sites such as salary.com and jobstar.org, type in where you live, your job title, and your years of experience, and you’ll get back instant information about the range of salaries paid to people in your region doing what you do. Use your social and professional networks. Rather than asking people how much they earn (which may feel awkward), try asking what they think someone in your position should earn. But be sure to ask men as well as women. Since women typically make only 76 percent of what men make, if you talk only to women, you’ll probably get inaccurately low estimates. Once you’ve established the range of salaries paid to people like you, you can set a realistic goal if you decide to ask for more.
3. Role-play in advance.
Practice with a friend or colleague to anticipate roadblocks and plan how to get past them. Imagine counteroffers that would stop you in your tracks. Imagine the worst thing the other person could do or say. Then devise responses that will enable you to remain calm and focused such as “How close can you come to my figure then?” or “Wow, my request seems to have really surprised you; let’s talk about a compromise that would make us both happy.” Practice going “four rounds” with the opposing negotiator rather than conceding as soon as he or she reacts negatively to your initial request. Set a high target and remember to focus on your goal rather than on the least you’ll accept. This type of “rehearsal” can reduce your anxiety about the negotiation and help you feel more control over the process. It usually produces better results, too.
4. Pay attention to how you ask.
If you ask for what you want in a way that seems overly direct, “pushy,” or demanding, this behavior from a woman may antagonize others and make them resist giving you what you want. This is sad and silly, but it’s a fact of life today: Women need to “manage” the impressions they create if they don’t want to be stonewalled. You can do this by using “friendly” body language (such as smiling and making warm eye contact) and by communicating your wish to find a solution that works for everyone. This approach allows you to set high targets for the negotiation without seeming threatening. It also has a silver lining: Many women feel more comfortable with a collaborative approach, and this type of “win/win” attitude has been shown to produce better results for everyone involved. Both sides come away happier.