Nation & World

Scholars ask, ‘How does gender affect negotiation?’

6 min read

To most of us, negotiation is a way of getting happily to the end of a problem. As in: Who’s going to do the dishes tonight? Let’s talk.

To scholars, negotiation is a more detailed and resonant issue, and has spawned a field of inquiry that stretches across many disciplines, including law, sociology, psychology, economics, government, and business.

It was this scholarly perspective that occasioned “Gender and Negotiation,” a two-day conference last week (Nov. 1-2) in the Peter and Isabel Malkin Penthouse at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Co-sponsors included the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons School of Management.

Participating in the intensive seminars were 26 scholars; 38 attendees listened, questioned, and commented.

“Negotiation is an important mechanism for addressing competing interests, allocating scarce resources, and resolving conflicts of all kinds,” said conference organizer Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

At the Harvard conference, scholars from around the country examined a fundamental question, she said: How does gender affect negotiation?

After all, negotiation is a complex social activity both inside and outside work, and is influenced by many gender-influenced factors. (Men and women, Bohnet said, have potentially divergent beliefs, values, behaviors, and perceptions.)

Both the style and the outcome of negotiations are heavily influenced by “gendered” expectations and beliefs, she said — yet organizations do not fully understand how negotiation has “different implications for men and women.”

In an article this spring in the journal Negotiation, Bohnet and Kennedy School colleague Fiona Greig had some suggestions for organizations: Consider gender differences in re-evaluating workplace negotiation policies regarding salary, travel schedules, assignments, and other issues. Make networking and mentoring available equally to men and women. And offer negotiation training that acknowledges gender.

Most workplace negotiations “involve parallel negotiations, where relationships, status, and power are worked out” — and all those factors relate in some way to gender, said Bohnet.

Deborah Kolb, a professor at the Simmons Graduate School of Management, pointed out that in the classic scholarly literature of negotiation, gender is not taken into account — creating what she called “negotiation without context.”

And part of the context of any negotiation is the unwritten power dynamic between the sexes, said Kolb, which “puts power front and center.”

That power dynamic can hurt. In job interviews, a woman who presses to negotiate higher compensation pays a higher social cost than a man doing the same thing. Once the dust settles, co-workers are less inclined to work with the negotiating woman.

That’s according to a study done by Hannah Riley Bowles, an associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. Being aggressive this way, she said in a Kennedy School interview, violates the stereotype of women as agreeable, social, pleasant, and other-oriented.

Over both days, scholars touched on other so-called gender stereotypes — the socially fixed views of men and women that influence the way both genders behave at work, and how they are treated.

In “Negotiating Flirts: Likable Losers,” Laura Kray and Connson Locke ’87 from the University of California, Berkeley, took on the stereotype of the flirtatious woman. She’s seen as more likable, said Kray in the presentation, but less competent.

One paper addressed the stereotype that women shy away from competing with men. That’s true, said Stanford University economics professor Muriel Niederle, who presented “How Costly Is Diversity?” co-researched by University of Pittsburgh economist Lise Vesterlund and Carmit Segal, a postdoctoral fellow of business administration at Harvard Business School.

But they also found that gender quotas work. Having more women in a workplace seems to increase women’s performance without negatively affecting men’s performance.

The first day of the conference focused on quantitative research in laboratory settings and was mostly about negotiations for material resources, like higher salaries, said Bohnet.

The second day of the conference touched on qualitative research — interpretive analyses of interviews and other narrative-based inquiries. Central to the day’s papers was “negotiating identity,” said Bohnet.

That can be a difficult concept to grasp. Within organizations, it’s not always clear there is anything to negotiate, said Kathleen McGinn, Harvard Business School senior associate dean and Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration.

Identity negotiations do not usually resemble classic workplace negotiations, which have a defined start time, agenda, and end time. Instead, said McGinn, such negotiations happen “in small spurts, over time.”

One vivid example of negotiating identity is pregnancy, according to “Expecting,” a second-day paper presented by two Boston College researchers and a colleague from Babson College.

Pregnancy represents a potential threat to the “ideal worker” concept held so dear at American companies — a worker willing to devote all of his or her time to work. Pregnancy might also underscore negative workplace stereotypes already held about women, the researchers said — that they’re more emotional, more physically limited, and that they are not committed to work.

Pregnancy might mean a “subtle marginalization” in the workplace, they said — but it also means an enhanced “feeling of support” for the pregnant worker.

Menopause is less visible than pregnancy in the workplace, other researchers said — but it’s another physically defined life stage for women that can change the dynamics of the workplace.

“The ideal worker, for women, doesn’t age,” said Linda Putnam, a professor of communications at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With Texas A&M doctoral candidate Jaime Bochantin, she presented “The Dialectics of Menopause,” a study of how blogs help aging women cope with workplace pressures.

In contrast to pregnant co-workers, “it’s not easy to find social networks for aging bodies,” said Putnam. “The blogs really helped women to get in a place to negotiate.”

It was late morning on the second day when panel respondent Lotte Bailyn took the long view. (She’s a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.)

Workplaces have to be redefined “to help everybody,” said Bailyn — to help men who are pressed to be ideal workers through aggression and competitiveness, and to help women whose instincts for nurturing “are never seen as achievements.”

She said that the Harvard conference acknowledged the idealized and limiting images of men and women that we take to work every day — images that are generally a disadvantage for women in the tournamentlike atmosphere of the workplace.

The coveted image of the “ideal worker” hurts both genders, said Bailyn, who offered an alternative: “Design work based on the assumption that every employee has nonwork interests and constraints.”