Negotiations Are Stacked Against Women. Here's What They Can Do About It

In a negotiation, lying can feel as intimate as telling the truth. It’s rooted in a basic, but deeply personal, judgment of the other party: Can he, or she, spot a liar? New research suggests that women tend to end up on the losing end of that calculation and may shy away from business deals as a result.

A study, released last month in the journal Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, tested participants by placing them in a feud over fictional real estate property. The results showed that women and men alike were four times as likely to lie when negotiating with a woman than with a man. Women were seen as more incompetent and nicer than men. Perceptions of ineptitude hurt them the most in negotiations.

Laura Kray, the professor at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business who led the study, has examined how issues from flirting to ethical rigidity play out for women in negotiations. This latest research adds to a pile of scientific evidence that women are at a disadvantage when asking for a higher salary, buying a car, and engaging in an array of other transactions in which uncertainty is involved.

These findings have led to some hand-wringing about how women can follow the Sheryl Sandberg screed despite a scientifically verified backlash against “leaning in.” Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with Kray about what women can do to improve their success rate during negotiations. The conversation transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Are some guidelines good for women to know going into a negotiation?

Basically what it comes down to is getting yourself into the best mental space you can possibly be in before you go into a negotiation. That entails reminding yourself of all the strengths you have and regenerating what you think it means to be an effective negotiator.

If we tell people what good negotiators are, and we list the masculine things, men do better than women. If we go into exactly the same negotiation, only now we’ve reframed it and we say that research finds that effective negotiators are empathetic, verbally communicative, and have good listening skills, women do better than men. Play to your strengths and give yourself the pep talk, and remind yourself that you do have what it takes.

Should women flirt in negotiations, or is being friendly enough?

Being friendly is not enough. Flirting is one tactic, a power tactic. We have follow-up work that we’re doing now, and, low and behold, we’ve developed a scale to measure flirting—and guess what? Men flirt more than women.

Psychologically, it’s driven by this sense of power and dominance. I’m not going to go on record and say women should flirt, but you have to see it as one tool in particular contexts. I also want to be very clear that all the work we are doing on flirting is of a very mild nature. Its not anything remotely related to what would go on in the dating sphere. It’s more platonic, everyday flirtation: Showing interest in somebody, being playful, eye contact. All those things, if they’re misinterpreted, carry risks. So that’s why I’m not saying this is the way to do things, but it’s a way of being in the driver’s seat, being in control of the interaction.

Are there practical things, or symbolic things that business schools can do to raise awareness of the kind of hurdles women face?

They need to be willing to address them up front, and it needs to be interwoven into the culture. I’m not sure what the practices of all the different business schools are, but I think about orientation. It’s such a joyous time when students arrive on campus, but it’s the one moment in time in which the school gets to define [what it is], and how [it does] things, and “this is a wonderful opportunity for you here, and at the same time here are some challenges you may encounter along the way.”

I think this variable of belongingness is so related to confidence. I look around, I don’t see a lot of people like me, and they look different than me, [with] different backgrounds.

Do you think part of that change could also come from increasing the number of women on campus?

Absolutely, and there’s no doubt about that. That’s a tough problem that schools need to do more on, and a lot of attention has been paid to it, and sadly not a lot of progress has been made. Why is it the case that, in 2014, law schools [and] medical schools are at 50-50 parity in enrollment, but business schools are in the 30 percent range. What’s going on here? To think that doesn’t have an affect on women’s sense of belonging or confidence is naïve.

How do women’s ethics get in the way of negotiating, and what do women do about that?

If we’re going to ask anybody to do anything differently, it’s really to emphasize to all negotiators, particularly men, that [unethical behavior] is going to come at a cost. And if it’s a one-off deal, and you’re never going to see the person again, you let your conscience be your guide. But what business operates in this day and age where there aren’t reputational consequences for behaving unethically and shaving corners?

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