Winter 2006

The Power of Ideas

Playing Against Type
Professor Laura Kray on how stereotypes hurt women in negotiations

By Kim Girard

When Associate Professor Laura Kray kicked off her negotiations class last fall with Harvard President Lawrence Summers' controversial remark that women and men differ in their "availability of aptitude" in the sciences, it didnít take long for the room to heat up.

"We spent half the class talking about this hot-button issue," says Kray. But, she didnít just focus on the veracity of Summersí claim that a shortage of capable women in elite positions may be attributed to an innate difference between men and women. She instead linked Summersí remarks to the broader issue of when and how these stereotypes impact women when they negotiate.

"Iíd often get the question: ĎWhoís better at negotiating, men or women?í" says Kray. "The question, not surprisingly, came most often from women."

In Krayís research, she explores the power of gender stereotyping at the bargaining table, building on and challenging previous research that found that men and women donít share equal success in negotiations. Although the advantage men enjoy is small, Kray says it should not be dismissed because it can quickly add up. For example, a seemingly negligible difference in starting pay between male and female MBAs negotiating their first job offers can have a large cumulative effect over the course of their careers.

Kray believes this doesnít have to happen. In experiments conducted during recent research, she asked business students to role-play in negotiation scenarios. In one experiment, she recruited 94 undergraduate business students, rewarding them with course credit and money based on their negotiation performance. Through the experiments, Kray sought to deepen her understanding of how endorsement of gender stereotypes affects the negotiation performance of both men and women.

Negotiators were asked to bargain over different job related issues; from salary to bonuses to benefits. They earned points for how well they succeeded in each area. Partnering men and women, Kray manipulated the explicitness of the gender stereotype endorsement by providing participants with information about supposed predictors of negotiation success before the bargaining began. When subtly activating the masculine stereotype, an experimenter told participants that "previous research has shown that the most effective negotiators in negotiations like the one youíll do today are rational and assertive, and demonstrate a regard for their own interest, rather than being emotional or passive." To make the masculine stereotype manipulation explicit, some students were told that "male and female students have been shown to differ in their performance on this task."

Kray found that subtly activating the masculine stereotype gave men the edge at the bargaining table. However, when a woman is told that a man has a leg up in negotiations, Krayís research shows a surprising outcome: the woman will set higher, more aggressive negotiating goals and outperform her male counterpart at the bargaining table. "All of the sudden women set their sights on disproving the stereotype, which actually improves their economic outcomes," Kray says.

Kray also found that prepping negotiators to value stereotypically feminine traits such as being verbally communicative and empathetic reversed the male advantage.

"By strengthening the link in negotiatorsí minds between stereotypically feminine traits and negotiation success, women become more confident and assertive in pursuing their bargaining goals," Kray says.

The bottom line is that women are fully equipped to negotiate well while retaining a stereotypically female style of negotiating. Kray calls this the "Marilyn Monroe effect," because it speaks to the actressís famed quote: "I donít mind living in a manís world as long as I can be a woman in it."

Kray has some advice for women who fear negotiations. Take control of the gender stereotypes and use them to your advantage. Donít take negotiations personally.

Do your homework and donít be afraid to ask for what you want. Practice what you want to say in the mirror.

Think about the long term. And finally, have a little fun. She says, "Learn to love the game."

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Laura Kray
Laura Kray