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A way out of the Gender Trap: How to Negotiate Successfully as a Woman

In our everyday professional life, we repeatedly experience situations which make clear the difference between male and female behaviour. For example: Before the start of a meeting, a projector must first be set up. In this situation, a man asks directly “Can somebody here fix the device?” — a woman, on the other hand, first tries to find the problem herself. And then the parties involved perceive each other very differently, which has an effect on the course of the negotiation that follows. From the woman’s point of view, the man is behaving pompously and arrogantly, whereas the man sees weakness in the woman’s concern.

This example highlights an essential point: It is not (only) the differences in the actions of men and women that are decisive, but above all the impact they have. This difference in impact can directly affect the success of negotiations. This becomes particularly obvious in salary negotiations, where women regularly achieve worse results than men. For example, even in 2020, women in Germany still earn considerably less than men. For years, the gender pay gap has been at 21 percent. This huge wage difference has various causes and is often the result of socio-cultural norms and social power structures. However, there is also a hypothesis that women are simply worse negotiators and are therefore responsible for their lower incomes.

How much truth is there in this statement? Do women and men actually negotiate differently? And with which tactics and instruments can I, as a woman, improve the success of my negotiations? This blog post provides an insight.

The Dilemma of Negotiating Women

Many studies confirm that men regularly negotiate for higher salaries than women. The currently dominant and most widely supported scientific approach to explaining these gender differences in negotiations is the theory of gender roles developed by Alice H. Eagly, Professor of Psychology and Management at Northwestern University in the United States.

She defines gender roles as social expectations about what characteristics are typically considered desirable for men and women. In many cultures, these expectations are clear: women are empathetic, intuitive and caring — men, on the other hand, are dominant, rational and assertive. These expectations shape the individual and act as “standards” for one’s own behaviour. At the same time, sanctions are threatened if women or men deviate from their respective gender roles. Women who are too dominant, for example, are considered to be “difficult” or too “manly,” while men who are too emotional are considered “weak” or “wimpy.”

The problem for negotiating women becomes clear very quickly: qualities such as assertiveness, ambition and dominance are valued and rewarded in negotiations. However, they are male-connoted characteristics and contradict the expectations that are placed on women. If a woman behaves “typically” feminine in negotiations, she achieves little economic success with her reserved and cooperative manner. However, if she negotiates in a dominant and assertive manner, she is judged negatively for deviating from her social role and — due to the resulting antipathy that this generates in the other party — achieves no greater success in negotiations. A classic dilemma.

In practice, men and women therefore usually behave, with anticipatory obedience, in accordance with societal expectations: in a study by Amanatullah and Morris, in which salary negotiations were simulated, men showed themselves to be more assertive. At the beginning of the negotiations, for example, they requested an annual salary increase of around 6400 US dollars. The study also showed that the fear of social sanctions plays an important role: Women assumed that even relatively low demands would be perceived as too demanding by others. Men, on the other hand, expected to be able to demand more before it would be considered unreasonable.

Using Instruments & Tactics for Success in Negotiations

Even though social expectations stand in the way of women’s success in negotiations, there are a number of instruments and tactics that women can use to significantly improve the outcome of their negotiations.

Preparation is Everything

Those who enter the negotiations with precise demands instead of vague ideas will be more successful. Therefore, define in advance exactly what you want to achieve in the forthcoming negotiations and have arguments on hand to back up your claim. In order to avoid unwanted concessions, define your “walk-away position” — i.e. your minimum demand, less than which you will not accept under any circumstances.

Just as important as the factual preparation is a positive mindset. Many people perceive salary negotiations as an unpleasant conflict in which their performance and self-worth are at stake. This is not the case. By seeing the negotiation as an opportunity, detached from your value as a person, you can enter the conversation more relaxed and demanding.

Mental Tricks Help

Studies show that there is one premise in which women achieve equally successful negotiation results as men: When they are negotiating not for themselves, but for others. In salary negotiations, it can therefore be helpful if you imagine negotiating for both yourself and your family at the same time. If you have a high capacity for abstraction, you can also directly imagine yourself negotiating for a good friend.

Further experiments have shown that women negotiate better if they can recall a previously experienced feeling of power. Therefore, try to put yourself in a situation in the run-up to negotiations in which, according to your own perception, you could exercise control and influence over others. In this way you can eliminate self-doubt and appear more self-confident.

Tactical Empathy Pays Off

Showing tactical empathy can certainly pay off in negotiations. Ideally, you can build important trust on the relationship level and at the same time emphasize your self-confidence.

It is important to find the balance between negotiating hard on an issue and dealing empathically. Listen carefully and direct your negotiating counterpart with questions to better understand their motives.

Always remain focused on your negotiation goal and stick to the strategy you have prepared. Address the most critical points right away and remain polite and calm when your counterpart unexpectedly returns fire. Dare yourself to bring ambitious demands into the negotiation in a friendly but firm manner.

Practice Makes Perfect

Women with more negotiating experience achieve demonstrably better results. Thus, as in all areas of life, targeted training does pay off.

One final remark: This blog post focuses on differences in negotiation between men and women. To this end, it should be made clear that we are addressing two socially constructed poles that describe “typical” male and female behaviour and which fail to adequately reflect the complex reality.



Pexels; bongkarn thanyakij | CC 0 Public Domain

The authors

Anja Feuerabend has many years of experience in the positioning of companies and management, as well as in crisis communication, the structuring and implementation of internal change management processes, and in international communication projects. Anja Feuerabend is a shareholder and member of the board of the international communication network ECCO Internationale Public Relation Network Ltd. Her life continues to consist of negotiations with numerous business partners.

Nicole Heyder has been supporting clients for 15 years in the areas of crisis management and crisis communication. The main focus areas of her work consist of strategic-communicative consulting in acute crisis situations as well as knowledge transfers in the form of seminars and trainings. As head of a crisis team specialising in national and international reputation crises, she conducts success-critical negotiations on a daily basis.