By Susan Hoover

Enterprising Investor, October 5, 2016 —


(Image credit: Courtesy of Monica Pedynkowski)


Career negotiation is a complicated process. Few take it lightly — and for good reason: It can be fraught with both uncertainty and emotion.

Compensation is only one component of career negotiation, although very often it is the main focus. Others aspects include enhancing recognition, expanding authority, and working to overcome barriers or challenges.

When negotiations are conducted well, these elements make work more productive and meaningful.

Research demonstrates that “finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment.”

Stereotypes about the negotiating skills of women and men abound. Chief among them: Men are better negotiators. But Hannah Riley Bowles, senior lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, disputes this.

In her presentation at the CFA Institute 2016 Alpha and Gender Diversity: The Competitive Edge conference, she used the analogy of a labyrinth to describe women’s career negotiations.

“While women’s leadership advancement is no longer impossible,” Bowles noted, “it is awfully tricky.”

She advised rising above the maze of pros, cons, and stereotypes and urged women to think about career negotiations from a strategic perspective that embraces a long-term goal or a general vision of where they hope to go and what they hope to achieve. That mapping process includes charting their internal capabilities, the specific contours of their organization, and the desired course toward fulfilling their aspirations.

Through conversations with executives about their personal experiences, Bowles described three main varieties of career negotiation.


Asking relates to those factors that are typically negotiable: compensation, promotions, professional development, and role assignments. These types of discussions have the most documented evidence of gender differences favoring men, according to Bowles.

What are these differences? When it is unclear if wages are negotiable, men are more inclined to ask for more. Similarly, if their negotiating counterpart is a woman, men are more likely to ask for more. By comparison, women were actually less inclined to initiate a discussion when paired with a female negotiator.

Issues of transparency also illuminated a gender divide. If it is not explicit that compensation is, in fact, open to discussion, women are less likely to negotiate than men. In such instances, Bowles explained, women believe they are bending, or asking for special consideration, when they really may be inquiring about something that is commonly given.


Bending, then, is negotiating for exceptional treatment or for something unusual. Examples of this include temporal or geographic flexibility, role definition or resources related to a role, and career development. Bowles stated that very often these types of requests are granted to high-value employees, and that in her conversations, women count more examples of bending than men do.


Finally, shaping is negotiating for ways to lead the company in a new direction. Not so much about a specific role or personal agenda, shaping focuses more on an alternate path for the organization or a distinctive way that something can be done. A new business line, product, or client base are just a few examples.

There are little to no gender differences when it comes to an executive’s inclination to initiate shaping negotiations, according to Bowles, although she did note that those in more senior positions are more likely to do so than those lower down in the hierarchy.

Who, What, and How

When approaching a negotiation, Bowles recommends that women think strategically about who they are negotiating with, what they are negotiating for, and how they want to negotiate.

Her first piece of advice is to reduce the ambiguity of the process. “Often we don’t fully prepare for the negotiation, or we don’t think ahead about seizing certain opportunities,” she said. “And so we end up dealing with these things opportunistically rather than strategically.”

The who ambiguity comes down to what the two negotiators know about each other. When dealing with someone who is unfamiliar, Bowles said, it is difficult to anticipate their behavior and much easier to rely on expectations. Knowledge gaps must be filled with something, so people naturally fall back on stereotypes: because he is a man, he will be tougher, or because she is a woman, she will be cooperative.

Bowles recommends that women take the time to learn about who they are negotiating with and to share information about themselves with that person.

“The more someone knows you as an individual, the more likely they are to see you as an individual,” she said.

How to negotiate is negatively correlated with a reticence to negotiate. If it is demonstrated that negotiation is expected or normal, any gender differences in reluctance to or uncertainty in negotiating disappear.

If it is unclear what it is employees should be negotiating for, then the higher the likelihood that the norms will be gender differentiated as well as the outcome.

Reducing the ambiguity around the what reduces the effect of gender.

Bowles stressed that while ambiguity is problematic, the larger issue is that other work factors — social networks, in particular — can amplify its effect. Within organizations, social networks influence access to both information and career support. People tend to gravitate towards those most like themselves, Bowles said, but if social frameworks are composed of similar people, that will affect both the access and the quality of the information received. A more diverse network means more varied viewpoints and more complete information, thereby sharpening focus and reducing ambiguity.

Similarly, a broad coalition of allies provides a richer source of advice, social support, and advocacy, and can help build stronger arguments and better determine what are reasonable and acceptable negotiating positions.

Bowles also encouraged women to demonstrate that their negotiating proposals are both reasonable and appropriate, and that they are taking the interests of the organization into account.

For successful negotiation preparation, Bowles said, women need to do three things:

– think strategically,

– reduce ambiguity, and

– tap a diverse network for both feedback and support.