The ability to negotiate successfully — whether for yourself or your organization — is a critical leadership skill.

As women continue to advance into more leadership roles, negative gender stereotypes about women’s ability to be effective leaders are falling by the wayside. Except when it comes to talking about negotiation. 

Myths such as “women are less effective negotiators than men” continue to persist despite a lack of substantive evidence supporting such a claim. 

In reality, women and men tend to have different strengths behind their negotiation skills, but they can — and do — achieve similar outcomes at the negotiation table

In this blog, we’ll discuss the differences between how men and women typically negotiate and the challenges women face when negotiating. We’ll also offer some negotiation strategies that all genders can use to conclude a successful negotiation. 

What are the Challenges Facing Women Negotiators?

Women face unique challenges at the negotiation table. Some of those challenges are internal, rooted in many women’s common cultural upbringing. Other challenges, however, involve the attitudes and behaviors of those around them.

To build better negotiation skills, women must unpack these challenges and develop strategies to overcome them successfully.

Women Seek to End Conflict, Not Start It

Negotiation, by its very nature, is a conflict, with two parties or more starting on what seems to be opposite sides of the table. 

Areen Shahbari, CEO of Shahbari Training & Consultancy and an instructor in Harvard DCE’s five-week women’s leadership program, Women Leaders: Advancing Together, notes that women often show more interest in interpersonal relationships at the bargaining table (Kray & Gelfand, 2009). Seeing negotiation as a conflict that might impact the relationship in a negative way, can cause women to negotiate less assertively or avoid negotiating at all.

“Conflict is neither negative, nor positive. Conflict is neutral and is needed to reveal the interests, goals, and needs of each negotiating party. Negotiation brings people who might have different views together. There should be a shared common goal between them. Conflict is a natural part of figuring out what that common goal is,” says Shahbari.

Women Can Find It Challenging To Be Dispassionate

Negotiation can be — and usually is — an extended process that rarely follows a straight line to the conclusion.

And it can be challenging to cope with the rejection and set-backs that are a natural part of the negotiation process.  

“If you ask for something and don’t get it, that feeling of rejection can be a huge emotional disappointment,” says Shahbari.

“Making the negotiations rational and keeping the process in perspective is incredibly crucial for both men and women, in general. Instead of walking away, take the time to understand why your request got rejected. Understand that you might need to negotiate multiple times to get the outcome you want,” says Shahbari.

Women Negotiators Can — And Do — Experience Backlash

Another challenge women face at the negotiating table is the risk of incurring negative consequences. Research has shown that the fear of being perceived as “too bossy” or “unfeminine” is very real. 

The key to engaging in a successful negotiation without triggering that backlash is balancing assertiveness with empathy, says Shahbari.

“Being assertive means that you understand and advocate for your own needs, that you understand and protect your boundaries. Negotiating with assertiveness and empathy means understanding what you need as well as what the party you negotiate with needs, and it means caring about your interests as much as you care about the other party’s interests. Instead of engaging in a win-lose kind of approach, you open up a dialogue where both sides can work together to find ways to ‘make the negotiation pie bigger’,” suggests Shahbari.

When Are Women Better at Negotiating?

The standard view of negotiation — that to succeed, one must be highly aggressive and competitive — actually creates a win-lose outcome. It is not healthy to the relationship, and is not recommended.

Companies with competitive cultures and competitive negotiation styles can act as gender triggers. Women who may not be comfortable with an aggressive approach, or who are concerned about the risk of a backlash, can utilize many different strengths that are required to be an effective negotiator. 

For example, you may excel at active listening, asking open-ended questions, and reading non-verbal signals. These strengths can give you powerful insights into the interests, goals, and strategies of the other party. 

These strengths seem to be most effective in scenarios where the goals are clearly defined and outcomes oriented toward “win-win” scenarios, such as when you:

Advocate For Others

According to Shahbari, women negotiators often excel at negotiating on behalf of others, such as their team or their organization. They tend to negotiate more assertively and achieve better outcomes.

Researchers argue that negotiating on behalf of others can be perceived as a communal behavior more aligned with gender expectations and roles. Moreover, women are less likely to fear a backlash when negotiating on behalf of others.

One recommendation, therefore, is for women to negotiate communally

“For example, if a woman finds out that women at her organization are earning less than men, she can negotiate on behalf of herself and others at her organization, which would result in a better outcome for herself and others at her organization,” Shahbari explains.

Negotiate For Things They Really Care About

Women are often highly effective when it comes to negotiating for the things they care the most about. 

“Women do very well when they negotiate for the things that are crucial for their lives. For example, they’re usually very good at negotiating part time schedules or flexible work hours so they can meet both their career and family responsibilities,” says Shahbari. 

In situations where companies do not offer flexible work, Shahbari recommends that women negotiate such deals directly with their managers. “If a flexible schedule is important to you, share your ask with your manager and ask about any concerns your boss has. Listen attentively to your manager’s interests and concerns. As long as you guarantee that their interests are met and their concerns are addressed, it will be difficult for your boss to reject your ask.” 

How Women Negotiate Differently Than Men

The research is fairly clear that men are more comfortable negotiating compensation packages and often achieve better results. Unfortunately, being less effective in this area has a profound impact on the gender pay gap and makes it difficult for women to level the playing field. 

Here are three common ways that women tend to negotiate differently than men during salary negotiation:

Women Choose Not To Negotiate

Women are more likely than men to avoid a salary or a job negotiation altogether, primarily due to the risk of negatively impacting their future working relationships in that organization.

In one study, for example, only seven percent of women coming out of business school negotiated their starting salary, compared to 57 percent of men. Failure to negotiate that first salary can lead to a $7,000 pay gap that first year. That wage gap then grows to as much as $1 million over the course of a 45-year career. 

Women Underestimate Their Professional Value

Unfortunately, women have a tendency to underestimate their professional value

Without a clear and accurate assessment of what you should be making, relative to others, it becomes more challenging to make the right opening offer and to set the appropriate goals. 

And unfortunately, starting off a job negotiation with a low opening offer or accepting an offer that is too low makes it difficult to level the playing field and achieve a salary that matches your real worth to the organization.

Six Negotiation Tips for Women to Use in Their Next Negotiation

So, how can you avoid these common mistakes and leverage your natural strengths to become a highly effective woman negotiator? 

Here are six tips that will help you achieve the outcome you want in a job negotiation, dispute resolution, or other type of negotiation.

Know Your Worth

It’s important to start any job negotiation with an accurate and realistic assessment of your value, both in terms of role and salary.

Be honest and articulate about your contributions to the organization. Frame your list in terms of “I”, not “we”, but also show how your contributions have led your team and your organization to greater success. 

If you are engaging in a salary negotiation, you also need to research, in advance, what someone in your role should be making. If your organization isn’t transparent about salary ranges, use your list of responsibilities to research what similar roles command on websites such as Glassdoor or Payscale.

Define Goals and Desired Outcomes in Advance

Don’t be afraid to start the negotiations with your most ambitious goals. 

Before starting any negotiation, think carefully about what is really important to you and where you can compromise. Be clear from the outset what you cannot accept and then stick to it.

It can also be helpful to brainstorm the other side’s goals and priorities. Think through potential scenarios from their perspective so you are ready to address their goals in a way that also meets your goals.

Cultivate Active Listening Skills 

Active listening is a critical negotiation skill. 

Active listening involves repeating, in your own words, what you hear the other person saying before you respond. This ensures that you really understand what it is the other side is asking for. And it’s a great way to diffuse tension in a difficult situation. 

Picking up on nonverbal communications is also critical in negotiation. Reading the other party’s body language can give you vital — but unspoken — clues about their bargaining position. 

Balance Assertiveness With Empathy

Women should feel comfortable being assertive about their goals. As Shahbari notes, “it’s your right to advocate for your own needs and interests.” 

One way to be assertive without triggering negative perceptions of “bossiness” or “unfeminine behavior” is to couple that assertiveness with empathy. 

Women who can harness empathy and emotional intelligence as natural strengths significantly lessen the risk of incurring backlash or negative consequences. 

Establish a Position of Power

Men are often very comfortable using space to establish power. They don’t hesitate to demand a seat at the head of the table and spread out to occupy multiple positions at the table. 

Women should not hesitate to do the same. 

“Occupying more space, feeling physically comfortable, even doing power poses—all of that helps establish your position at the table. And it will help you feel more confident as well,” suggests Shahbari.

Take a seat at the head of the table or directly across from the lead negotiator on the other side and spread out your papers to command a large physical space. 

This is also a good tip to consider when trying to promote your visibility more generally. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

“Negotiation skills are like any other skill — we have to practice it to be good at it,” says Shahbari.

That doesn’t just mean reviewing and practicing your pitch (although you should do that as well). 

It means starting a negotiation any time you get the chance. 

“Part of overcoming fears and discomfort is going out and practicing,” Shahbari says. “Practicing is the key to learning how to negotiate, to learning the steps in a negotiation, to believing in yourself and advocating for your needs and interests.” 

How to Apply What You Learned

For some women, as for some men, negotiation comes easily and feels like a natural way to do business. For others, it can be a struggle. Yet regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, negotiating is a skill that can be learned, improved, and even mastered. 

For some, these simple tips may be enough to build upon the skills you already have. 

Improving your skills through negotiation workshops or through a women’s leadership program that includes negotiation in its curriculum can also help you take your negotiating skills to the next level.

And this is one area where investment in your professional development can have a very real—and very significant—impact on your career.