Negotiating Success: Practical Advice to Help Women Advance Their Careers

December 01, 2014

Negotiating Fall 2014

Professor Paula Gutlove provides insight and guidance to help women negotiate a successful career path.

Article first appeared in Fall 2014 SOM Management Magazine

Organizations are increasingly aware that diversity in the workplace brings added value to all, not only to women and minorities. Research has amply documented that a well-managed, diverse workforce is both good for the bottom line and a key component of sustainable success for an organization. Employers are finally beginning to understand the subconscious biases that create barriers to success for women in the workplace. While this is excellent news, it is also important for women to look at their own biases and think carefully about what it means to negotiate their own careers. In a survey at the 2005 Simmons Leadership Conference, Kolb and Kickul found that, for women leaders, it does “pay to ask.” They reported in their 2006 follow up article in CGO Insights that “any time a woman considers a leadership role at any level, negotiations should be part of her thinking.” Rethinking what negotiation means, and improving women’s negotiation skills, is an important part of empowering women in the workplace.

Women who ask for a higher salary often face a “double bind”—they can be perceived as either competent or likeable, but not both. Thus, women can be penalized for asking, because that action violates the cultural norm of women being “nice” and “accommodating.” A woman who asks is often considered aggressive and unlikeable, and does not get the raise or the job, while her male counterpart, doing exactly the same thing, is rewarded. This largely unconscious bias, held by both men and women, inhibits women’s agency in the workplace.

The wage gap is but one symptom of wider gender disparity in the workplace, and there are other important aspects of career negotiation. Indeed, how a woman negotiates her career path is arguably a more important determinant of lifetime earnings than is pay negotiation at organizational entry and promotion points. Relevant career-path factors include: choice of occupation, promotions, years in the work force, and hours per week worked. Thus, if we want to understand the gender disparity in career trajectories, we need to look beyond compensation to see how women and men negotiate their careers.


Women are learning to rethink the negotiation process itself, from a competitive win-lose act to a process of collaborative problem solving.
At the 2013 Simmons Leadership Conference several colleagues and I conducted a survey to enhance understanding about why and how women are negotiating in today’s workplaces. As we reported in a 2014 CGO Insights article, compensation was commonly cited in the survey as a motivation factor for negotiation, but it did not make the top of the list. More commonly cited reasons were: seeking a new type of position, a promotion or a new leadership opportunity; advancing one’s career by changing how or where one worked; and seeking to enhance one’s potential for promotion or a leadership opportunity. The most common barriers to workplace satisfaction that women described were related to not being given appropriate recognition or reward, getting stuck in bad politics, being overlooked or blocked from advancement, or feeling undervalued.

Fortunately, women are learning how to negotiate effectively in today’s workplace, to address the double bind and backlash inherent to defying socialized expectations. They are learning, for example, to rethink the negotiation process itself, from a competitive win-lose act to a process of collaborative problem solving. In this collaborative, win-win process, the interests of both parties are uncovered and addressed and value can be created at the negotiation table. Women are also learning how to negotiate using a range of communication modalities to even out an uneven playing field and improve their career success.

Negotiation is a required course for all graduate degree students at Simmons School of Management. When women apply what they have learned about negotiation, we see them excel in collaborative, mutual gains negotiations to further their career success. Here I offer seven steps to help you negotiate your own career success.


When women apply what they have learned about negotiation, we see them excel in collaborative, mutual-gains negotiations to further their career success.

Seven steps for women to negotiate a successful career path

1. Determine what you really want

As baseball great Yogi Berra has said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Too often women give up control of their careers because they don’t know what they want, and let someone else decide for them. By contrast, leaders are people who live their passions, and lead others to follow. Think about your passions. What do you want to do? Why do you want to do it? How can you be a leader in your own life?

Consider where you want your career to be in two years, five years, and ten years. Think broadly about your career goals. Prioritize your interests. Then, formulate short-term goals that are consistent with those interests. Reach for the stars in your longer-term goals, and then focus your short-term goals so as to make your next step an exciting, purposeful and realistic one. Research shows that women are better negotiators when they are negotiating issues that matter to them, which could be money but are often issues such as time, flexibility, and opportunities. Hence, it is important to prioritize your needs.

2. Assess your value

Assess the value that you bring to the table, including your skills, experience, and recent accomplishments. In doing so, ask for input from your colleagues, boss, and friends, to be certain you have a full picture. You may uncover glowing reports in areas you have overlooked. Women tend to disempower themselves, and get in their own way, when they modestly diminish their achievements and do not see or share their own value.

Document your value to make it visible to yourself and future employers. Create a portfolio of achievements, awards, thank-you letters, letters of recommendation, etc. Empowering yourself with the knowledge of your own worth will increase your confidence and your negotiating power.

While assessing your value, it is also important to look at oneself critically. Are there things you need to learn, or waypoints on your chosen path that require additional credentials or qualifications? Try to plan ahead to address or compensate for areas in which you may be vulnerable. Thinking Management Magazine l Fall 2014 18 ahead and formulating a plan can turn a vulnerability into a strength.

3. Get the information you need

Learn about the market, the job, and the people you will be working with. Research the policies, programs, salaries, and benefit packages available. Use your networks to find out about more than salary—try to get the inside story on the people, the culture, and the job itself. Find out as much as you can about the interests of potential supervisors and coworkers. Ask yourself: What do they want? Think carefully about how you can negotiate for what you want by giving them what they want. Be mindful of the importance of your networks to your career success, and use care as you build and maintain them.

4. Develop your alternatives

What would you do if you do not get what you are negotiating for? The better your alternatives are away from the negotiation table, the more confident and creative you will be when you are at the table. The better your options are, the less likely you will be to take less than you are worth, or to agree to a deal that does not meet your needs.

Use your networks to find out what the employer’s alternatives might be. Prepare your arguments in advance to help them see why you are their best choice—better than any of their potential alternatives.

5. Create options

Be clear about what you need and flexible about how you meet your needs. Be creative and come up with multiple proposals that could satisfy your needs. Many issues beyond salary are negotiable including flex time and work hours, travel, education reimbursement, childcare, maternity leave, etc. Think also about how you might want to negotiate other aspects of a job, such as the fit, the responsibilities, the review process, the promotion path, and the ultimate career path. Consider options for mutual gain that you can create to meet the needs of both parties at the table.

6. Plan and practice

A negotiation can be viewed as an exchange of information between two parties in search of an agreement. Therefore, it is useful to think of negotiation as an exercise in good, twoway communication. While you can’t plan the entire negotiation ahead of time without the other side’s participation, you can think about how to introduce your ask, and you can practice various approaches. It can be especially useful to plan your opening, thinking about what to say, and how and when to say it. Think about what information you need from the other party and how you will get it. Practice good communication skills, with a mix of telling the other party about yourself, on the one hand, and asking questions and active listening on the other hand. Imagine and practice different scenarios and various responses.

While it is important to plan ahead, prepare to be flexible, so that you are listening carefully for new information. In that way, your negotiation strategy can evolve as the conversation proceeds.

7. Find your own, unique negotiation voice

In every negotiation there are needs, perspectives, feelings, and ideas on both sides of the table. The best negotiators are able to voice both empathy— an understanding of the needs of others—and assertion—a clear articulation of one’s own needs. A good balance of these perspectives will increase understanding and the potential for both parties’ needs to be met. Women are often more comfortable, and better received, when they connect what they need with what is good for their group or organization. Hence, women are sometimes counseled to think “I” (what you want and need) while saying “we” (so that your ask is framed as a benefit to the group, not just to yourself ). Practice this approach and see if it fits your own authentic negotiation voice.


For women who know how to negotiate effectively, it certainly does pay to ask. Women who achieve satisfaction and success in their careers do so in part because they know what they want and are able to negotiate effectively to get it. The bottom-line lessons are to know what you want, appreciate the value you bring to the table, articulate your needs clearly, listen carefully to the needs of the other person, and use your authentic negotiation voice to engage the other in a shared process of creating valuable options that will satisfy you both. So don’t ponder if your next career move is negotiable—get out there and negotiate!

Portions of this article draw from the Center for Gender in Organizations April 2014 CGO Insights article “Women, Negotiations, and Career Advancement” by Paula Gutlove, Hannah Riley Bowles, Patricia Deyton, Jamie Potter, and Lauren Walleser.


Paula Gutlove

Paula Gutlove, DMD, is a professor of negotiation and leadership at the Simmons School of Management. In addition, she is an associate of the Negotiation Pedagogy Group of the Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School, and Deputy Director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies. Dr. Gutlove has more than two decades of experience teaching negotiation, leadership, and the management of conflict.