The Main Obstacles Women Negotiators Face and How to Overcome Them

In my first job, I attempted to negotiate a higher salary than I was offered. I knew I was worth more but they had the advantage of the economic crisis. They knew I wouldn’t find another job and so their response to me was, “no, but we will review your salary six months from now.” When the time came, I prepared a business case for an increase but my manager didn’t even look at the document. He simply replied to me that they don’t do salary reviews until the following June. I felt deceived. It was October and I wasn’t going to wait so I found another job.

I’m not going to argue that women negotiators only face external obstacles but they can’t be ignored. I know also from my own journey that I had many barriers to my interactions with others which were passed down to me by generations of men and women who followed the rules of patriarchy.  It’s not their fault but it is my responsibility to find my voice and my worth.


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External obstacles identified in studies supported by Harvard University are listed below. You’ll also find tips and advice about how best to deal with difficulties you might experience during negotiations.  If you are a man reading this, read on to gain insight and to understand how best to support women negotiators.

You’re less likable. Both men and women are less likely to prefer working with a woman who has successfully negotiated a higher salary during the recruitment process according to a Harvard reported study. The same study found there was no such opinion towards male negotiators. What this indicates is that it is socially acceptable for a man to serve his own interests but not a woman.

You’re viewed as less competent and more gullible. It sounds crazy but both men and women found it easier to lie to a woman because she’s viewed as less competent or astute when distinguishing a lie from the truth. I’ve certainly experienced this with estate agents who doubted I had the knowledge of the market or basic principles of negotiating such as offer and acceptance.

You’re more likely to be ignored.  Male, white professors are more inclined to ignore requests to meet and discuss research opportunities from women and ethnic minorities than from white men. Sadly, the same trend was observed from female and ethnic minority professors. This suggests that we take white men more seriously than any other category of people.

You’re less likely to be trusted with sensitive information. During negotiations, subjects did not feel that sensitive information would be handled appropriately by a woman and they preferred to divulge it to their male counterparts. This type of information included private interests that are necessary for creative settlements and extremely valuable for mediators and negotiation coaches. This is about who we trust and what we base it on.

We face the ultimate challenge of choosing between negotiating something that will benefit us and being seen as aggressive and unlikable. Alternatively, we could just accept what we are given without question and be liked. I know which one I am choosing and I accept that it won’t be to everyone’s liking.

So how can we overcome these hurdles? 

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We have been told by several high-profile women that we should be negotiating more, especially around salary and promotions. Michelle Obama did this when she accepted a job but needed flexibility for childcare. The famous “Lean In” attitude advocated by Sheryl Sandberg puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of women to communicate better, negotiate more often and to be confident about yourself. That’s easy coming from a woman with a house full of nannies, au pairs and the money to pay for it, but not as helpful for women who aren’t so privileged, don’t have a supportive partner,  or are unable to deal with the realisation that assertive women are not endearing.

Starting with yourself, however, is a good idea. Here are some ideas that might help you be more successful as a female negotiator:

  • Learn to be assertive. Aggression is not acceptable in any working environment for any person. It belittles, undermines and bullies people which often leads to conflict. You can express your needs clearly and openly in a way which also respects that the other person has needs too. This approach empowers people and should be encouraged by employers in both men and women.
  • You can be assertive in a likable way. Women often believe that we have to sacrifice our needs or be at the disposal of others in order to be liked. This is not about being friendly, it’s about being submissive. You can however, use a friendly tone of voice, use empathy and also use body language to demonstrate openness without having to sacrifice for anyone you don’t want to.
  • Stop Caring What People Think. Whatever you do, you won’t win. So just be yourself, communicate in the best way that you can with respect and politeness but remember, you won’t please everyone and why should you? Start seeing professional development as including developing confidence, self-esteem and influence and you will empower yourself for bigger and better things.
  • Building Trust is About Communication. It’s not a static concept and can be lost and gained. If during negotiations, you feel that information is being withheld from you, stress that everything is considered confidential within the negotiation. Use empathy. Draw up documents that are exchanged beforehand to outline your commitment to confidentiality both in terms of public disclosure and also in terms of internal usage. Reiterate your commitment to confidentiality and ask for permission to disclose. It’s what great mediators do all the time and what you can do during negotiations to encourage information exchange.
  • More gullible? Not if you are prepared for the negotiation. Do your research about the market, the company, and the potential interests at stake. The estate agent who tried to pull the wool over my eyes went suddenly very silent when I told him about what I had found out. It also shows that you are a professional force to be reckoned with!
  • If you’re being ignored, ask again. And Again. Until you get an answer. If you are rejected, ask for feedback to know why. It’s important, as always to do this politely and assertively. Why should your voice go unheard?!

Employers and other organisations should start recognising societal pressures and perceptions of women leaders and negotiators. The responsibility does not rest on our shoulders alone. However, we can strive to communicate more effectively and work on removing the barriers to our own success that we have internalised. That’s not just aimed at women, but men too. We will all share in those benefits.

Need some tips on negotiation? Feel free to read my blog posts about best practice and how to get the best deal for yourself.

What do you think? Let me know about your experiences!

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