The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March 2016) is “Pledge for Parity”.

Gender parity is a hot topic in organisations across the world. It is no longer simply a matter of ‘equality of the sexes’. It is increasingly evident that the participation of women in the workforce is an economic issue, with a recent McKinsey report suggesting that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion US to the global GDP by 2025.

In recent times, negotiation has been identified as one of the key skills that can help women to achieve greater parity in the workplace – particularly in terms of remuneration, flexibility and opportunities for career advancement. But the research shows that ‘women don’t ask’ – in other words, that the lack of gender parity in the workplace is not because women negotiate ineffectively, but rather because they are reluctant to negotiate at all.

Last September, the City of Boston offered free negotiation classes to every woman who works in the city – that’s around 80,000 women over 5 years. While this is a commendable and generous gesture, is it just a very expensive Band-Aid solution to a much deeper problem?

Is negotiation skills training the answer?

From CMA’s perspective, there’s no doubt that all people – regardless of gender – would benefit from improving their negotiation skills. Of course, it’s self-serving for us to say that, but it’s also the reason that every CMA employee you’ll ever meet is so deeply passionate about what we do. Negotiation is a part of every area of our lives – if we’re not negotiating with others, we’re negotiating with ourselves (e.g. deciding to go to the gym or stay in bed). We are negotiating all the time.

To learn more about interest based negotiation, you can read Getting to Yes

The problem with the City of Boston’s approach is that it reinforces women’s salary negotiations as the headline symptom of what is potentially a much deeper cultural issue around the way women are perceived in the workplace.

In a few weeks’ time, CMA will be releasing a discussion paper on this very topic. But instead of jumping to the conclusion that a woman’s failure to negotiate her salary is necessarily due to a lack of negotiation skills, we’re going to delve into some of the research and see what other diagnoses appear.

Why don’t women negotiate?

One hypothesis is that women don’t negotiate (as much as they should) due to the impact of gender-related assumptions about how women ‘should’ behave and the negative inferences that are drawn when they don’t conform to those stereotypes. In other words, women who negotiate tend to be judged more harshly than men who negotiate. The impact of this judgment on key working relationships may lead women to avoid negotiating altogether. (It’s worth pointing out that most of these judgments occur unconsciously.)

This phenomenon could in itself be due to various factors – for example, many of our clients enter our workshops with the assumption that negotiation is a ‘blood sport’, or a ‘battle’, and it’s ‘eat or be eaten’. At the very least, negotiation is seen as a ‘game’ that involves winning or losing. In this paradigm, women may believe that they have to behave more aggressively in order to be successful, hence the judgments and adverse relational consequences that flow from that behaviour.

On the other hand, women who adopt a more considered style of negotiation may be seen as ‘weak’ and penalised for this approach, depending on the prevailing organisational culture. A female client recently shared with me her frustration of being told by some male colleagues that her approach was ‘too soft’ – only to have them call her in to negotiate with their stakeholders when their aggressive approach not only failed to get results, but inflicted damage on their key stakeholder relationships.

What’s the solution? stay focused on the end goal

There are at least a couple of ways in which we could address this. One solution is to become better at uncovering unconscious bias and pulling it up at the roots – something to aspire to, perhaps, but extremely difficult. A more pragmatic approach is to try and mitigate the unfavourable assumptions that may arise where a woman is more assertive (e.g. choosing to negotiate). That’s where principled negotiation comes in.

Principled negotiation (also known as ‘interests-based negotiation’) provides a framework for a more collaborative style of negotiation that enables both women and men to achieve better outcomes and manage the perceptions that underpin their key working relationships. Principled negotiators approach negotiations as a ‘joint problem to be solved’. This enables them to avoid the characteristically aggressive or deceptive behaviours that are commonly associated with negotiation – and cause untold relational harm.

So in the end, it does come back to negotiation. According to Stanford Professor Margaret A Neale, there are strategies that women can use to make them more effective in negotiations generally – and these strategies are consistent with principled negotiation.

Where to from here?

Gender parity is a multifaceted issue that requires a multifaceted solution.

Principled negotiation is not a silver bullet, but organisations that adopt this can create a level playing field for women and men to ask for what they want in a collaborative manner.

To quote negotiation expert Dr Chester L Karrass:

“In business as in life – you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.”

Women – and men – deserve better. It’s no longer a matter of ‘equality’ – it just makes good sense.

If you’d like to receive a copy of our forthcoming Negotiation Insights paper on ‘Women at the Negotiation Table’, please subscribe here.

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