Negotiation Bias Against Women Leaders And How to Overcome It

In today’s professional world, many women leaders still face significant obstacles when it comes to business negotiations – particularly the biases stemming from outdated stereotypes about gender roles in the workplace. Despite all the progress we’ve made towards gender equality, research shows that when we, as women, negotiate, we’re still met with scepticism and sometimes even hostility due to violating traditional gender norms. This is because we are viewed as less competent, credible, and trustworthy than male leaders, simply because of our gender.

Men are not to blame for this. Decades of gender stereotyping that have evolved in our society negatively affect both men and women, both in and out of the workplace. 

No matter the cause, this bias can significantly impact women’s ability to successfully negotiate business deals, partnerships, better compensation, promotions and other opportunities in the workplace. It’s 2023, and it’s high time we break these stereotypes and empower women leaders with the respect and confidence that allows them to negotiate with the same credibility as male leaders.

The gender pay gap: a 136-year wait for equality

According to current rates of progress, it will take another 136 years for the world to achieve gender equality. A big part of the issue is the gender pay gap, which partly stems from men and women having differing negotiation styles in the workplace. Men are more likely to negotiate, do it more readily, and with more confidence than their female counterparts, leading to a disparity in compensation and opportunities for advancement.

This lingering inequality is not because women are unskilled or incompetent.  Instead, it is the result of bias in the workplace and the fears women have of facing backlash or rejection. If we’re serious about breaking down the barriers holding women back in leadership, it’s important to start here by addressing these issues.

What are some of the barriers women face in negotiations?

As women in the business field, we are all too familiar with the obstacles that hold us back from excelling in negotiations. These barriers to negotiation success are complicated and have many layers, coming from long-standing stereotypes, societal prejudices, and systemic barriers. According to research, these barriers can be broadly categorised into three main types: cognitive, motivational, and paradigmatic.

Cognitive barriers are the negative stereotypes and biases that exist in society regarding women’s ability to negotiate effectively. These stereotypes often portray women as less assertive, less confident, and less skilled at negotiation than men. As a result, women leaders may internalise these stereotypes and doubt their own abilities, leading to a lack of confidence and self-esteem when it comes to negotiating.

Motivational barriers refer to the societal pressure and resistance that women leaders may face when trying to excel in a traditionally masculine domain. Thanks to cognitive biases, negotiation is often seen as a “masculine” skill, and women who excel in this area may be met with resistance or even hostility from their male counterparts. This can create a hostile and unwelcoming environment for women in leadership, making it more difficult for them to negotiate effectively.

Paradigmatic barriers refer to the limitations in the current approach to the study and teaching of negotiation. Traditional negotiation literature and training programs have been heavily influenced by a masculine model of negotiation, which has resulted in a lack of representation and consideration of the unique needs and experiences of women.

This can make it challenging for women to find the resources and support they need that speaks to their unique experiences when negotiating in business. With no support or knowledge base that can help them understand the challenges they face, many women end up internalising negative attitudes and perceptions about their skills and ability to negotiate, creating a vicious cycle.

Understanding women’s attitudes towards negotiations

Given the barriers that women face at the negotiation table, particularly when negotiating with male bosses, it’s understandable that we often feel hesitant to ask for what we deserve. However, it’s important to remember that this hesitation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask for what we want or raise an issue if we think it’s important. The fact is, the fear of potential backlash that women may face when negotiating can sometimes prevent us from getting what we ask for.

Until the issue of gender bias in negotiations is addressed, female negotiators face a double-edged sword. On one hand, if we don’t negotiate assertively, we may not achieve the promotion, partnership or other outcome, and the opportunity slips away. 

On the other hand, if we do negotiate confidently, we may face backlash and be perceived as too “aggressive” or “bossy”, which can undermine our efforts and ultimately damage our professional reputation.

This is why it’s crucial for both men and women to actively work together on breaking down these barriers so that women can negotiate on equal footing with men.

So, how do we overcome this negotiation bias against women?

To truly achieve gender equality in the corporate world, we need a new approach to levelling the negotiation playing field. As women, we must be empowered with the awareness and ability to recognise and overcome cultural biases against women being perceived as “too assertive” by simply negotiating or asking for what they want. 

This is a shared responsibility and requires all parties to come to the table to drive real, lasting change. It is not the sole responsibility of women to address this issue, which means that organisations, and male executives within them, also have a crucial role to play in creating a more inclusive and non-discriminatory work environment to overcome the bias against women at the negotiation table.

To achieve this, organisations can take the following steps:

  1. Acknowledge and address the problem head-on by educating employees about the existence of the bias and the impact it has on women
  2. Conduct confidential interviews with women leaders to help uncover any barriers they face and identify ways to overcome them
  3. Re-evaluate existing criteria and processes for determining pay and promotions, to ensure that they don’t contain hidden bias
  1. Conduct regular audits or reviews of pay rates across different roles or levels to ensure that there are no unconscious differences in pay based on gender
  2. Hold individuals and teams accountable for creating a fair and inclusive work environment and evaluate them based on their efforts to overcome any observed bias
  3. Provide opportunities for women to develop their negotiation skills and practice negotiating in a supportive environment

The takeaway

Despite all the progress we’ve made towards gender equality, the negotiation table remains a challenging arena for women leaders in 2023. Biases stemming from outdated stereotypes continue to limit our perceived competence, credibility, and trustworthiness when negotiating, no matter what it may be.

However, these barriers can be overcome through addressing unconscious bias, implementing fair negotiation guidelines, and providing skill development opportunities. By doing so, organisations can create a more level playing field for women leaders, leading to fair compensation, advancement opportunities, and ultimately, a crack in that stubborn glass ceiling.