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Attention Women! How to Get What You Want in Negotiation

Most of us know that women are paid less, on average, than their male counterparts for the same work. But one out of five women don’t negotiate their salary when they accept a job offer. Failing to negotiate a starting salary when you take that first job after graduation results in an average $7,000 loss in just the first year of work, and will add up to between $650,000 and $1 million of losses over the course of a 45-year career.

Are women just fools who leave money on the table? Or is there a systematic bias resulting in this disparity. Multiple factors are at play. Consider, for example, the language and metaphors we use to describe negotiation. Men often frame the process as “winning a ballgame,” while women describe it as “going to the dentist.” Expectations drive behavior. If women regard negotiation as a chore, they either decline to negotiate or approach the process in a way that hurts the outcome. There is also the legitimate concern (backed by research), that negotiating may carry its own penalties for women in ways that don’t apply to men.

The good news is that negotiating skills can be improved. Based on a growing field of research on gender in negotiations — paired with research on positivity and mindfulness — career coaches and business experts offer four central strategies that can help women perform more effectively in negotiations.

They include:

1. preparing fully
2. cultivating positive emotions
3. negotiating communally
4. negotiating a package

Preparing Fully

We typically don’t like doing things we think we’re no good at, and often completely opt out of activities where failure is likely. The more we’re averse to something, the longer we avoid it, and then the more power we give it — resulting in a vicious cycle. How many of us shrink at the thought of public speaking and avoid it at all costs? Putting effort into preparations for a negotiation — knowing what you want, imagining acceptable alternatives, and developing clear strategies for being persuasive — can significantly increase confidence and competence. In addition, thinking through other desirable outcomes or a “fall-back plan” provides flexibility and comfort, reminding you don’t have to take whatever is offered.

For example, when a woman gathers salary data from Glassdoor and other reliable sources, she will often find that she is underpaid and also better understand her worth. This can lead to steps for achieving parity. In comparison with male workers, women are less likely to perceive — and experience more discomfort in expressing —their value in dollars. Good preparation can help overcome this barrier. Entering the salary negotiation process armed with that data, and preparing a persuasive explanation of achievements and capabilities that warrant a higher salary, significantly increases confidence in a successful outcome. You should even consider practicing (by role playing, for example) the negotiation before the “real” event to reinforce skills and cognitive behavioral readiness for the negotiation.

Cultivating Positive Emotions

Positive emotions boost women’s chances for successful negotiation by enhancing their willingness to look for mutually beneficial solutions and develop capacities to engage in creative thinking and identify a wider range of options. Those experiencing a positive mood prefer collaboration over competition. By cultivating a positive mindset, women are more likely to work to achieve integrative gains — asserting their needs and encouraging the other party to do the same.

Research also shows that people experiencing positive affect have thought patterns that are more flexible, integrative, unique, and open than those in a negative or neutral mindset. Summoning us a joyful memory helps students perform better on a standardized test, for example, and improving the moods of medical students by providing candy boosted their accuracy and creativity. Before starting your negotiation, use positive priming (imagine something positive or engage in some joyful activity) to increase positive emotions. You will find that this enhances creativity and openness to collaboration — all of which are key to successful negotiation.

Negotiating Communally

While men (or negotiators exhibiting masculine behavior) may win the immediate battle, they often lose the war due to their hyper-competitiveness and un-empathetic approach to relationships. Yet women can face a double-edged sword on both accounts — issues and relationships — because prioritizing their own needs can make others perceive them as bossy and aggressive. One way to avoid this trap is to reframe a negotiation as though you are making a deal on behalf of a group. For example, a woman who negotiates for more resources to enhance the quality/productivity of a unit that has been stretched by downsizing will be perceived as collaborative rather than aggressive. Research demonstrates that women who adopt a “relational” or “I-we” approach, showing concern for another person’s perspective, can usually minimize the social drawbacks of negotiation.

Reframing the negotiation in this way — even when the ultimate goal is to increase one’s total compensation — so that the other party also benefits is especially important for women. The communal mindset can help a woman find an I-we strategy that is beneficial not only for her personally, but also for the company or even a larger cause. For example, instead of arguing that “Getting an MBA is important for my development as a manager,” frame your ask as a win-win: “With the additional financial and managerial skills I’ll gain in an MBA program, I’ll be able to assist in or lead more complex tasks or projects, enabling you to focus on more strategic and high-level priorities.”

Negotiating a Package

When it comes to salary negotiation, women can place themselves in a better position by looking at the overall compensation package, which may include paid time off, the hiring of an assistant or other support personnel, or a commuting allowance — all of which have financial value — instead of just salary. While a package provides opportunities to trade off issues that could have different value to each party, focusing only on salary can lead to a dead end (where neither party budges), win/lose outcomes (one party outmaneuvers the other), or compromise (each party has to sacrifice some of what they want). In some situations, salary ranges can be fixed, whereas performance bonuses, housing allowances, and other types of compensation are not. So instead of saying, “My minimum salary expectation is $120,000,” try, “I’d be willing to consider a salary that is below my minimum if we can agree on the total compensation package. In addition to my eligibility for year-end bonuses, I’d like to discuss administrative support, relocation assistance, and the possibility of two months’ rental in a furnished apartment, given my 800-mile relocation.” In an ideal situation, this request would be supported by data about norms in the industry, the area, or best of all, the specific company.

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Emery Reddy