The Negotiation Secrets Not Enough Women Know

Whether you are pondering if your current job is salvageable, interested in a promotion, or thinking about how to get back into the workforce on your own terms, I’d like to introduce you to the work of Kathryn Valentine.

The Negotiation Secrets Not Enough Women Know
Photo by Microsoft 365 / Unsplash

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With so much up-for-grabs about our workplaces and as we continue to self-reflect about our caregiving needs, burnout, and what we want from our careers, it feels like now is a ripe time to think about negotiation. Even though I’ve negotiated many times in my career, I have to admit that it's still hard to shake negative stereotypes of women in corporate negotiations – like that they are all hard-charging, insufferable #girlbosses who are only out for themselves. We need to talk about and destigmatize the practice. Better pay, more job satisfaction, and more professional advancement can all be benefits of negotiating. But it’s a skill that takes practice over the course of many years and situations, and shouldn’t just be saved for a last-ditch, do-or-die scenario.

Whether you are pondering if your current job is salvageable, interested in a promotion, thinking about how to get back into the workforce on your own terms, or even just have a relatively small workplace ask that could make your life better, I’d like to introduce you to the work of Kathryn Valentine.

In 2014, Kathryn Valentine was an ambitious 27 year-old MBA student doing a crucial summer internship. She finished her project early and was hungry to showcase her energy and skills, so she decided to negotiate with her supervisor for another assignment. She thought  this would help demonstrate her efficiency in finishing early, her go-getter attitude and would hopefully distinguish her as an exemplary intern and translate to a job offer at the end of the summer. She spent the weekend before the meeting reading up on negotiation tactics, and even practiced on her mom.

Kathryn writes, Monday at 10am I walked into the intern coordinator’s office. By 10:08, I had managed to offend her. By 10:12 I was told I ‘wasn’t a good fit for the culture.’ Once it was clear I wouldn’t be getting a job offer, it didn’t make sense to waste the rest of the summer, so we parted ways, and per company protocol, I was escorted off the premises by a security guard, my head spinning. Within 15 minutes I had gone from a top candidate to no job offer, and then no internship.”

In the last 8 years, Kathryn has spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong in that conversation. She’s also spent years pouring over research on negotiation tactics, and has since founded Worthmore Strategies, a consultancy that works with companies to help retain and promote women. Her conclusions are that negotiations are highly gendered spaces, with women at more risk of negative outcomes from using tactics that go against gender stereotypes. Backlash can be as dramatic as getting escorted out of the building, or more subtle, like getting passed over for opportunities down the line, or not being included in key meetings. When she thinks back to that fateful internship conversation, she recognizes that the advice she found about how to handle her internship negotiation didn’t take gender into consideration at all, and encouraged her to mimic a take-charge style with a list of demands. In her conversation, she used lots of “I” statements and framed her requests more as what she deserved for her own advancement.

Kathryn Valentine

Thinking back on it now, Kathryn thinks she should have placed more emphasis on maintaining a good relationship with her supervisor and highlighting her interest in a strong relationship with the company. “I should have used a ‘relational ask.’ Something along the lines of, ‘I'm already having a great time here. Thank you for the opportunity. I'm really excited because I was able to finish up my project early, which I think gives an opportunity to deliver even more impact. Can we talk about what I might be able to do with the second half of my summer? I would be really excited to move to another team simply so I could meet more people here.’ That would have landed fine.”

Negotiations are highly gendered spaces, with women at more risk of negative outcomes from using tactics that go against gender stereotypes.

Unpacking these gender dynamics isn’t a tacit approval of how much gender manifests in the workplace, but is meant to better equip women to navigate the conscious or subconscious expectations of those in power. "Men are cultivated to take charge. Women are cultivated to take care. What that means is that men can pretty directly ask for what they want because that's what we expect from them. When women do that, it’s seen as something that needs to be corrected, and they can face backlash. I think more importantly, for a lot of women, it feels uncomfortable. And if you're uncomfortable doing it, then you're not gonna do it right,” Kathryn explains.

Kathryn now knows that women can greatly benefit from using collaborative negotiation tactics, which is breaking out of the adversarial, zero sum mindset that can creep into how we think about negotiation, and instead focusing on how your ask benefits both you and the company. When I was a Nieman fellow, I once did a day-long negotiation workshop with Harvard Business School professor Brian Mandell and he called this, 'writing their victory speech.' Basically, how do you frame what you want as a victory for the person you are negotiating with? “You want to do well at your job. Your employer wants you to do well at your job. Fundamentally, we’re aligned on that. Anything that prevents you from providing the impact you are capable of isn’t good for you OR them,” Kathryn writes.

Another stereotype we need to challenge is that women negotiating is somehow inherently selfish. In fact, women are MORE successful in negotiating when they frame their ask as communal rather than solely benefiting themselves. Kathryn tells the story of a woman she worked with around framing the ask of moving a leadership call from 6pm to 3pm. After learning there wasn’t a strong reason for the late meeting time, more just a ‘way things have always been,’ she didn’t say, “this is a bad time for me, I have young kids and I want to be out of the office earlier.” She said, “Our company has evolved to be much more supportive of families, and this change would be aligned with those values. What do you think?”

As I have found extensively in my reporting, communally-framed asks do make a difference. Groups of women coming together to ask for universal changes to policies, especially around family leave, can be highly effective at getting results, perhaps much more so than one person making a request.

Family leave is among the 75 things Kathryn has identified as something people can negotiate for beyond just salary. While negotiating for policy changes that can benefit everyone is a wonderful thing to do, Kathryn suggests people be gentle with themselves if they aren’t able to immediately push through better deals for all. “If you are just trying to stay in the game, don’t put that weight on your shoulders,” she recommends. However, that doesn’t mean once you get a better deal, you should forget how you benefited. “There definitely may be opportunities for you to say down the road, 'hey, why don’t we make this standard for everyone?'  I was just working with somebody who was negotiating fertility benefits. She found out that her company actually had a surprising IVF benefit that no one would've expected," says Kathryn. "And when she pulled back the curtain on it, it was because of one of the senior leaders who was a woman had negotiated it. Then after she finished negotiating it, she said, ‘By the way, this is important for everyone.’” It was now a universal company policy.

But let’s be clear that being able to negotiate at all is a privilege. Women who are service workers or are living paycheck to paycheck, the risk of backlash is too great if a negotiation leads to missteps. Part of Kathryn’s work is motivated by her own mother’s story. “I was raised by a single mom who found out she was underpaid by, collectively probably over a million dollars when she retired, but she never negotiated because she couldn't risk it. I think that if she were given these tools, she probably could have.”

And unfortunately, while Kathryn says there are around 60 good studies on gender and negotiation, studies that break down other intersections, especially around race and sexual identity barely exist, and don’t have enough rigor behind them for her to make significant conclusions. “I've seen these intersections come up, but I have not seen the strategy around relational and collaborative negotiation need to change.” (This is frustrating that existing research sees “women” as “cis white women.”  If you’d like to read more on specific advice aimed at women of color in the workplace, I’d recommend Minda Hart’s book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.)

It’s not surprising to me that during this era of professional revaluation and newfound worker power, unions are also having a renaissance, especially in female-dominated fields like retail and food service. I’m all for all of the ways we can come together to stand up for ourselves, and challenging our own assumptions about negotiation can absolutely be an important part of reimagining a better workplace for all.

Let’s keep talking about this... In tomorrow’s members-only thread I’ll be asking you all to share your own stories of negotiation feats and faceplants. I’d love to hear what’s worked and not worked for you in the land of workplace negotiation.... And what you’d do differently in the future. Members, check your inboxes at noon EST Thursday.

More on Negotiation: Check out Kathryn Valentine's hot off-the-presses co-authored HBR article, 3 Negotiation Myths Still Harming Women. If you are interested in learning more about Kathryn’s speaking and consulting work, along with getting more negotiation tactics, sign up for her newsletter.

What I’m Watching: The new Amazon Prime show, “A League of Their Own.” Such a great historical drama, now with lots of gay plotlines. Sorry Madonna and Tom Hanks, I like this one more.

What I’m Reading: Social Media is often a dumpster fire, but I’ve loved this thread, on the one book you’ve recommended more than any other in the past 10 years. I got lots of great recs from it.

Only 33 Days Until the Election! Let’s not sit this one out, y’all. If you live in North Carolina, your body is on the ballot. I recommend volunteering with You Can Vote (non-partisan, voter registration and assistance) or Neighbors on Call (partisan, canvassing for candidates.)

See Ya There? I'll be at the Charter Workplace Summit in NYC on October 12th. Let me know if you'll be there!

Double Shift Member Hangout

SAVE THE DATE for Oct 28 at 2pm EST

Join us for our next members-only hangout! This month's topic will be a casual "Ask Me Anything" with moi, Katherine. Is anyone else's fall schedule feeling kinda overloaded? Let's decompress before the sugar high of Halloween weekend and have the relaxed feminist mom hangout we all need and deserve. We can talk all things Double Shift newsletter, you can share a current quandary, you can ASK EACH OTHER things, you can give me feedback on the membership program or things you'd like me to can ask me what kind of car I drive (this was a real question from a previous AMA) or we can just shoot the shit. Come on, let's hang out. OCT 28th at 2pm EST. Members will also get an email reminder and a google calendar invite. If you want in on this kind of fun, don't forget to join!


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