Diversity and Inclusion
Work and Organizations

The Graduate Voice and Influence program teaches students that negotiation is critical to their career success

Not negotiating is costly for women.

This was the message of Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor of Management Margaret Neale at the Clayman Institute’s Graduate Voice and Influence Program’s event on the gender dynamics of negotiation. 

During her presentation, the co-author of the popular book on negotiation,  Getting (More of) What You Want, warned the nearly two dozen female graduate students about the dire consequences of neglecting negotiation—and not just in terms of salary. Negotiation skills are critical for everyday life, from deciding on who gets the most interesting tasks and stretch assignments at work, to where to spend the holidays, and, even, to who takes out the trash. 

Women, statistically, are less likely to negotiate than men, whether it is because they do not consider it an option or because they are uncomfortable with it. As a result, they do not reap the benefits of negotiation. There is a perceived adversarial nature to negotiating, and some people attribute negative personal attributes to successful negotiators. But Neale encouraged reframing the perspective on negotiation from an escalating battle to a collaborative problem-solving endeavor, where both parties end up better off than they were before. Negotiation can be viewed as an influence strategy because each counterpart must voluntarily agree to an outcome. As for discomfort with disagreement and negative attributions, Neale pointed out that sometimes “leadership means people not liking you,” asking “how much are you willing to pay to (potentially) be perceived as nice and to avoid the discomfort of asking?” 

Neale’s emphasis on the importance of negotiation to level the playing field resonates with other extant gender research. One study of business school graduates found that more than half of the men but less than 10% of the women negotiated for their starting salary. As a result, starting salaries of the men were 7.6% higher than the women. Graduates who did negotiate were equally successful—women were just much less likely to do so.

Interestingly, Neale spoke about how women are more successful when negotiating on behalf of others. So, women can perform best in negotiations when framing it as problem-solving on behalf of another or a team. However, they must be careful not to let this shift the focus to “feeling good” about the outcome; feeling satisfied with an outcome means they likely shift focus away from their own aspirational goal, placing their own needs second to the greater, collective goal. 

This points to another of Neale’s key points about negotiation success: Have a reservation demand (a “bottom line”), but do not reveal it to the negotiating party. Instead, a person should focus on their aspirational goal, keeping their reservation for reference only at the end of the negotiation, to see whether they should walk away. It is important to do research and set aspiration levels that are optimistically higher than a reservation line. Preparation is key to finding that optimistic aspiration “just this side of crazy,” says Neale. Sufficient research provides both information about alternatives and an appropriate reservation price.

Consistent with the idea of considering negotiation as a collaborative problem-solving project, Neale advises people not to assume antagonism. The person who receives the first offer can identify congruent issues. If someone is trying to maximize a relationship-building goal, it is best to be direct, while explaining their willingness to go along with the shared goal with an explanation to avoid suspicion. If someone is trying to maximize a resource-based goal (such as getting a higher salary), it is best to use a trade-off strategy in their counter offer, where they can pair issues of high and low importance. Making the first offer, in contrast, allows them to set the offer closer to their aspiration.

Finally, Neale emphasized that negotiating partners create value by packaging issues together rather than negotiating each separately. Often, the parties will not value the issues identically and oppositely, so proposals incorporating all of the issues is more aligned with problem-solving orientation. 

Neale’s presentation was part of the Clayman Institute’s Graduate Voice and Influence Program, which seeks to empower women and underrepresented minority graduate students, so that they have more influence in their departments, academic fields, and careers. Each year, a cohort of around two dozen advanced graduate students take part in workshops to enhance their professional and interpersonal skills. Click here to watch a short version of Professor Neale’s discussion on negotiation on the Center for Women’s Leadership website.