Why aren’t women better at negotiating, I asked myself after watching the BBC’s The Apprentice discount buying episode. The competitors had to track down 10 items and pay as little as possible for them – but the women proved to be markedly less adept at negotiating than the men.
The men blithely and unashamedly offered less than half the value of the item – and their tiny offers were accepted, on most occasions, as the vendors saw the colour of their money and decided to take it. The women, on the other hand, professed that they didn’t want to come across as being rude or aggressive when asking for a better deal. In one negotiation, when buying a length of tartan, they managed a measly £1 discount.
The women focused more on finding all 10 items, treating it as a treasure hunt, rather than on securing the lowest possible price for each one. Even though the men found only seven – and had penalties for the missing three items – they won because they played tough when negotiating.
It’s not just on TV reality shows that this apparent female discomfort with negotiating plays out. Two friends of mine, one male, one female, found themselves out of work at the same time. The woman took the first job offered to her: a temporary contract on two-thirds of her salary. She reasoned that she would be learning new skills, and anyway, some kind of job was better than no job. At the end of her contract, she found herself out of pocket and back at square one.
The man also took on a temporary contract, for a job he wasn’t hugely interested in, but on a lucrative day rate. The company wanted him to take on a permanent role. He initially refused, as the organisation wasn’t offering enough money. He finally accepted when his bosses made their third offer.
In my experience, not all women become soft around the negotiating table, as I’ve had female bosses who strike an extremely hard bargain. However, given the performance of the women’s team on The Apprentice – and the fact that the gender pay gap is still so vast, with UK women earning on average 79% of their male peers in the UK – it suggests that women have room for improvement in their negotiating skills.
Here are my Nine Negotiating Tips for Women
1. Leave emotions out of it: When approaching the bargaining table, leave your fears at the door. This is about a business decision, so anger and upset have no place here.
2. Control your nerves: A good tip I’ve learned when dealing with a stressful situation is to ground myself, with the help of posture and breathing. I sit with both feet on the floor, knees together and back straight. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm: four breaths in, five breaths out. This will help you stay calm and in charge of your feelings.
3. Ignore the whiny voice in your ear: You know the one: the inner critic, the insidious that whispers all your doubts and says you’re not good enough. Ignore it. It’s there to sabotage you, and therefore has no place in negotiations. This is easier said than done – but at least for the time you’re negotiating, pretend that the little voice doesn’t exist or matter.
4. Don’t take it personally: A ‘no’ will not rock your world. A ‘no’ is simply a ‘no’ to that particular request right now, not an outright rejection of you, your life and everything you stand for. The sky won’t fall in just because someone says no to you.
5. Pretend you’re negotiating on behalf of someone else: A friend of mine is a whiz at bargaining when buying for the retailer she works for; but melts into a puddle when asking for something personally. When she learned to act for herself in the same way as if she was negotiating for her boss, her colleague, or a friend, she was able to be much more objective about her aims and outcome.
6. Act like an adult: Not getting our own way can sometimes propel us back into the impotent feelings of being a child asking her strict parents for an extra sweetie. This happens unconsciously, but it can prompt petulant or passive-aggressive responses and behaviours. Remember that you’re an adult and the person you’re negotiating with is an adult: keep the discussions on that grown-up level.
7. Don’t be apologetic: I know how squirmy it can feel asking for what you want. But do so firmly and pleasantly – with eye contact that’s confident rather than confrontational; body language that is open yet assured; and verbal language that promotes you in a positive light.
8. Be assertive, not aggressive: Assertiveness comes across in the way we say something as much as what we’re saying. Women can often be passive in their language – or can over-compensate for this passivity by becoming belligerent and aggressive. Practise the words and phrases you will use in the negotiation, and concentrate on keeping your tone of voice neutral and matter of fact. For example, say: “I would like”, rather than “I think you should give me”.
9. Value yourself: How much are you worth? When negotiating your remuneration, whether as an employee or when supplying services to a business, make sure the effort/reward ratio is worthwhile. Work out not just how much you need to live on, but how much you deserve to earn for the expert input into this job or project. And be prepared to walk away if necessary. As my male friend has proven, if they want you, and you have presented and articulated the value you can offer, they are more likely to up their offer to work with you. If not, then find another client or employer who will.