Hownow Consulting's Louise Hedges joined us for an evening session addressing some of the unique challenges faced by women when negotiating at work.

Negotiation is a complex process and one that many of us struggle to master. Research suggests that, for women, it can be even harder, particularly when negotiating for themselves — for instance, for better pay, credit for work/ideas, flexible working etc — rather than for a team or on behalf of an organisation.

Some of the reasons for this stem from outdated ideas of 'gendered norms', and unconscious biases that both men and women are conditioned to have, which can work against women navigating in these situations. As this paper from the Harvard Business School puts it: "the very act of negotiating for credit or title can be seen as inconsistent with the cultural, gendered norm of women being 'amiable'. In other words, women may invite backlash by merely asking to be recognised for the value they bring their organisations."

As we all work towards greater diversity and equality in our organisations, these are complexities that many of us find ourselves navigating, and that it's important to address. On the evening of the 31st July, we invited a group of members to the Library for a conversational evening exploring some of the challenges that women face when negotiating at work, and how to overcome them. The evening was led by Louise Hedges, Head of Training and Coaching at Hownow Consulting, who shared tips and insights on how to transform these situations into opportunities for positive and mutually beneficial conversations. 

Here’s what we learned.

The evening began with the each member of the audience introducing themselves, and shedding light on their reason for attendance. Across the board responses were unsurprisingly similar – from desires to increase confidence, self-belief and assertiveness, through the need to learn the languages and boundaries for more effective negotiation.

Deep rooted issues and identifying your shackles

Acknowledging these similarities, Louise spotlighted the need to identify your shackles, and find out what has held you back from fulfilling these desires previously. To do so, she advised the audience to draw a lifeline, and along it note the events that have caused them to hold back – many of which she is sure would be a result of the subconscious gender bias women experience from the moment they’re born. “From the toys that are chosen for you, through to the ways teachers answer your questions, it’s very deeply ingrained. But that’s not your fault.”  

Louise proceeded to quote an article written by Madeleine Morris for Campaign Live on Monday following her recent redundancy. Madeline said “Looking back, I could have changed things. Perhaps I should have taken more risks… I should have fought to get bigger, better [projects]... That’s what a bloke would have done”. 

She believes Madeline sums up the issue entirely: women lack confidence in the workplace when it comes to meeting their needs. Working as a coach for both men and women, Louise has seen this first hand. “Women are just as good at negotiating as men when it’s on the behalf of someone else, but when it’s for them, it’s a different story.” 

However, she confidently assured the audience that this can be reversed. After all, “negotiation is a game”, she said, “and it’s as old as the oldest profession and it’s a natural human process”.

Setting goals and realising your needs

When it comes to negotiation, women are often faced with the troubling issue of double-binding. “You’re damned if you do, doomed if you don't,” Louise proclaimed, “so you need to have goals – know exactly where you want to be in five years”. 

“If you can’t name what you want, how do you expect to get it?” she continued. To help identify these wants and needs, Louise proceeded to give the audience a handout titled ‘Needs list’, and opened up a neighbour-to-neighbour discussion to encourage the audience to identify their own desires. 

A stand-out topic of discussion was a result of the need for ‘meaning’ at work. Louise said that when it comes to meaning, goal planning becomes essential. Setting yourself goals should motivate you to get ahead of the game: “you can go where you get fed, or feed yourself”. 

The importance of structure

Discussing core needs also uncovered some members of the audience's problems with distant leaders, and more specifically, managers who have a lack of interest at times of negotiation. To overcome these issues, Louise highlighted the importance of considering how you structure conversation.

“Structure, structure, structure”, Louise said emphatically. “Are you clear about what you want, and how it will affect the business?”

In negotiation, "you have to give some things away in order to gain others, and it should always come down to what’s right for the organisation”. So if a leader lacks presence at times of negotiation, it's important to build better wins for both parties: “Maximise what’s of value to them. Always start with the organisation's goal and turn it back to you – ‘this is what I can deliver, and this is what I want in return’”. 

Louise also addressed the importance of choosing the correct language when negotiating, such as finding the balance of ‘Ts and Fs’ (quoting Myers and Briggs' Thinkers vs Feelers concept). “More T, less F is vital in your propositions” – meaning, put less focus on personal concerns and the people involved (feelings) and place more weight on objectives and impersonal facts (thinking).

“Then, it’s all about practising and rehearsing” she said, and “how you’re going to start that conversation without ambushing them”. To do so, Louise suggested peer mentoring, and finding somebody with whom you can openly discuss, rehearse and practice your negotiations. 

Sowing seeds and getting the timing right

When asked for a negotiation conversation, Louise stated that “it can trigger a person’s limbic system and set them in survival mode”, which is unlikely to lead to the best outcome. Therefore, it’s necessary to be careful with timings, and consider when you go about asking for a negotiation conversation. 

“You can never be too early. A pay review is too late to ask for a pay rise”, she said, and suggests “sowing the seeds before it".

“Ask them when it would suit them to have a conversation – don’t expect them to speak to you there and then. Start by saying ‘I have some ideas. Could we grab a coffee? When fits in with you in the next two weeks?’”.

Don’t be afraid to name the elephant 

One particular audience member spoke candidly about the issues they have encountered with overdue pay rises and hostility from their bosses. Louise reiterated the fundamental need to set goals, plan a structure and get your timing right before having a pay review – but if this doesn’t work, "then to name the elephant”.

‘Naming the elephant’ requires people to be candid and open about the issues they are facing. Don’t be afraid to say that “This is a difficult conversation” or “I’m finding this hard to say”. Transparency is key, but always “stay you”, Louise added.

Stay you

While the key is to 'play the game', you should be yourself throughout the entire process. Louise handed out a ‘Strengths Finder’ – a list of positive attributes – and encouraged the audience to pick those that represented them each at great depth. “Now, when you’re preparing to negotiate, think about how you can leverage these strengths, who you actually are, and what your style is”. If you’re funny, bring that into your negotiation conversation; and if you’re a number and statistics person bring that forward; “just always be your authentic self in that conversation”.

Photography by Elizabeth Presland.

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