Shrinking Gender Pay Gap: Teach Women How to Negotiate

October 12, 2015 4:25 pm

By Barbara Frankel

Women still earn 78.6 percent of what men earn, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau. Gender pay gaps on the managerial level are common, but they are smaller at the most progressive companies, The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

The greatest issue, companies tell us, is in negotiating. While many women are strong at negotiating business deals, when it comes to themselves, they take negotiations too personally and are afraid to ask for more. A Columbia Business School study in 2011 published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association found women conceded 20 percent of the total value of their salaries in the first-round of negotiations.

What can your company do to help women negotiate strongly and close the pay gap? We interviewed Robin H. Sangston, Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer of Cox Communications, No. 17 on the Top 50. She is also chair of the company’s Women’s Employee Resource Group.

Q: What has been your observation about the difference between the way women and men negotiate for personal objectives (getting hired, raises, promotions)?

In my experience, and based on what I’ve read and heard from others, when it comes to negotiating for personal objectives in the workforce, whether it is getting hired, getting a raise or getting a promotion, men still do a better job of negotiating their terms of employment than women do. Research shows that men get hired on their potential, whereas women get hired on performance. In other words, a man will promote himself as qualified for a promotion even if he only meets some of the criteria, while a woman won’t seek the promotion unless she feels confident that she meets all the criteria. It ultimately comes down to confidence. Whether it is because women undervalue themselves or because women are more inclined to want to be perceived as likable, they tend to negotiate weakly, or not at all, on behalf of themselves. Just as in any business negotiation, men assume that an employment offer is just that — an offer — and that they, as a matter of course, will expect a counter offer.

Many men don’t take rejection personally, which enables them to keep coming back on their own behalf even after having been told “no” before. The paradox is that while women have a hard time getting to “yes” when it comes to hiring, raises and promotions, they also have a hard time saying “no” on their behalf when asked to take on additional assignments, special projects and just more stuff both in the workplace and the personal space. This reluctance to say “no” when asked by others to take on more comes both from a desire to please others and be liked as well the desire to be all things to everybody.

While I agree it is important to be strategic about when to say “no,” it is perhaps equally important to be strategic about when to say “yes.” If saying “yes” has more pros than cons associated with it than saying “no” then go for it, but don’t simply say “yes” out of a sense of guilt. Plenty of men wouldn’t.

Q: Do women negotiate differently when it’s not personal (a business deal)?

I’ve found that women have a great deal of success negotiating on their clients’ or companies’ behalf because they are usually very emotionally intelligent and able to flex their negotiating style to the situation. This also may motivate women to push harder for their clients, but they can also face the double standard of being perceived as “bossy,” “pushy” or the other “b-word” if they negotiate too hard. I think in general women are more successful in business negotiations, and face less of a double standard, if they are perceived as being collaborative, i.e., it’s the adage of “power with” versus “power over.”

I believe there is some truth to the currently trending philosophy that men tend to be more hierarchical and women are collaborative. This ability to see a business negotiation as a collaboration, rather than a zero sum game, can enable women to find creative ways to solve knotty problems and achieve a win/win. Interestingly, my friend Judge Laura Tate has observed differences in the negotiating styles and success rates depending on whether a male lawyer is negotiating with another male (lots of testosterone, which can lead to no agreement), a female lawyer is negotiating with another female (lots of collaboration and work to find common ground) and a male lawyer is negotiating with a female (where it can go well or poorly depending on how well the female lawyer is able to affirm the male lawyer’s ego in reaching a settlement).

Q: What are the most effective ways for companies to educate women about being more assertive yet remaining authentic?

Certainly by providing role models who exemplify the traits of being confident but also genuine and authentic. Here at Cox we have many women who have managed to balance assertiveness with strong interpersonal skills that help them be successful within our culture.

Jill Campbell, Cox EVP and COO, who has been featured in DiversityInc, is one who immediately comes to mind. As Helene Lerner has written, confidence is being comfortable with oneself while courageously taking action without necessarily knowing the end result. Jill has been very open about several times in her career where she had to trust her instincts and take a leap of faith without necessarily knowing how it would turn out. Fortunately for Jill and all of us she trusted her gut and made great decisions. We are fortunate that our company actively promotes women leaders like Jill and gives us the tools, through strong mentoring and leadership development programs, to develop those skills.

Q: How can employee-resource groups help with this?

As the Chair of our Women’s Employee Resource Group I am excited about the many ways ERGs can both inspire women to take appropriate risk and provide valuable resources and training to give them the tools to be more confident personally and professionally. At Cox, our Women’s ERG recently hosted a moderated panel co-sponsored with the EY Women’s Resource Group on “Redefining Confidence.” The panelists helped debunk many myths about women and confidence, including that you have to be completely ready before taking on new challenges, that acting on intuition is reckless, that self-promotion is in authentic, that women can’t compete for sponsors and that women have a hard time getting a voice at the table.

The dynamic panel of three C-Suite women shared their personal (and often humorous) stories of the struggles and challenges they faced and how they conquered them on their way to the top of the corporate ladder in a way that was authentic and honest and accessible to all of the women (and men) in the audience. In addition to these large-scale programs, ERGs can also help create intimate settings through peer-to-peer mentoring circles, where small groups of women can learn from each other in a safe environment by sharing best practices, tips and encouragement.

Q: How can mentors help women negotiate?

A good mentor should be able to help his or her mentee prepare for any sort of negotiation through role-playing.  As in anything in life, and a negotiation is no different, preparation is key. Before any negotiation — either in a personal or business context — one should play out the possible scenarios just like one studies a chess board to see how one’s opponent might react to a particular move. Given that men and women have different negotiating styles, it is invaluable for women to have both male and female mentors so they can get diverse guidance.

Q: Do companies need unconscious bias training for those in power positions so they understand male/female differentials in negotiating?

While unconscious bias training can be an eye-opening and memorable experience for a group or team, especially when it is around some of the more sensitive areas of race and ethnicity, any challenges women may face in terms of negotiating in either a personal or professional setting can be solved by helping women boost their confidence through solid training and mentoring programs. In addition, I believe women leaders in the workforce in particular have a moral obligation to give rising leaders, both men and women, candid feedback, whether it’s about their negotiating acumen or any other skill needed to be successful in the work environment, to enable them to build those skills and the confidence to use them effectively.