Business Psychology

Article No. 329
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Bargaining With Men

New research sheds a fresh light on negotiating between genders.

"No. You can�t have it. I won�t let you. Find another way.�

These words are hard to hear, and we�ve all heard them, but for business owners, they don�t signal the end of a conversation. They signal the beginning. They are a challenge that business owners recognize as an opportunity to move forward where most people fall back, and so we persist.

Persistence. Persistence in the face of intransigence. Persistence in reaction to another person who is just as persistent, steadfastly opposing what we want to do. Persistence, even if the other person is of the opposite gender. Such persistence was the subject of a study by Hannah Bowles from Harvard University, and she learned some things we can use. She also learned some things it will be uncomfortable to hear.

Bowles conducted two large scale experiments. In the first, she matched young men and women individually with research confederates who were instructed to bargain with them but never give in to their demands. The young men and women were instructed to reach an agreement. They were negotiating the purchase of a 4-bedroom home, and they were given a maximum amount they could spend. They would never reach an agreement. But how long would they persist, and would there be a difference by gender? Would men persist longer than women?

Contrary to popular gender stereotypes, when everything was averaged, men were not more persistent than women. However, there was a difference with one subgroup. Women who bargained with male research confederates persisted much longer than women who bargained with female confederates. The men seemed to trigger more persistence in the women, but would that increased persistence lead to superior performance? Do women have an advantage when they bargain with stubborn men and persist? Bowles' second experiment explored this question.

In the second study, participants negotiated the sale of a business with several issues to settle. An agreement was possible but difficult, and each party received real financial inducements to obtain a settlement favorable to them. Each party also received contradictory priorities. Bowles measured the amount of persistence of each person and the forms their persistence took. She also measured the favorability of the agreement each party obtained using an elaborate scoring system that she developed.

Overall, women persisted longer when matched against men just as they had in the first experiment, but the men consistently negotiated more favorable agreements. It was a significant difference. Men appeared to have an advantage, so Bowles examined the women�s performance more closely. She divided the women at the median line and compared women who scored above average (for women) with those who scored below average. There was a clear difference.

High scoring women expressed their dissatisfaction with a male opponent�s negotiating positions nonverbally. They frowned and scowled. They spoke in a sad, disappointed tone. Their posture slumped, and they used emotional displays of annoyance and frustration. They looked and acted defeated.

In contrast, low scoring women spoke directly to the point, stating that a male opponent�s position was unacceptable. They confronted the men, and demanded that the men change, but it didn�t happen. It was the indirect method that gained greater concessions. However, it didn�t equalize the performance. Women who persisted and used indirect ways to express their dissatisfaction did better than women who used direct methods, but they still did not fare as well as the men. They gained some ground, but they were still behind.


Bowles explains it this way. When men and women bargain with each other, gender is the silent elephant in the living room, and it needs to be acknowledged and grappled with. When women employ indirect influence techniques, they signal to men their understandings of this issue. They signal an acceptance of a classic definition of gender and acknowledge a hierarchy between them. Men are superior. Women are inferior. Men make demands and get what they want. Women compromise and give in. Once this signal is given, both men and women unconsciously embrace expectations they�ve known since childhood. Each knows what to expect from the other person, and each knows what is expected of them, and they act out their roles. The outcome is merely fulfilling expectations, and that is a powerful force in human interaction.

In contrast, if women ignore the gender issue and act assertively, then they suffer a penalty, and it is reflected in increased resistance by the men to reach agreements favorable to the women. It seems that a refusal to acknowledge the gender issue stiffens male resistance. For women, it seems to be damned if you do, doomed if you don�t.

Bowles� research throws fresh light on an every-day experience. We will now have a harder time unconsciously embracing expectations that guarantee unfairness or inflicting unjust punishment on women who only want to act like adults, but Bowles is not optimistic that anything will change. However, business owners tend to have more awareness of their emotions and motives than most people, and they can embrace these findings as an opportunity to recognize and set aside arcane expectations and bargain like adults. Everyone will benefit if they do.

Reference: Bowles, Hannah and Francis Flynn (2010) Gender and Persistence in Negotiation: A Dyadic Perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 53(4), 769-787.

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