3 Reasons Women Don’t Negotiate — And How We Can Overcome Them

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Daniella Kahane, Executive Director and CEO, WIN Summit
Daniella Kahane, Executive Director and CEO, WIN Summit
June 23, 2024 at 1:25PM UTC

It might come as a surprise to you that most women — and when I say most, I mean the vast majority of women — do not like to negotiate.

After all, most women (and men) think of negotiation as an aggressive or combative process in which one person is left slain, gutted and for the birds, while the other emerges triumphant, rich with the spoils of war, and gloating over the victory. That might sound a bit extreme, but the truth is, most people see negotiation as a zero-sum game, where two people are fighting over a limited amount of pie, and both are trying to take as much of that pie as possible. 

This traditional view on negotiations keeps us stuck because for those of us who don't like going into combat, every impulse tells us to run for the hills. And so, we do. We stay far away from negotiating and only engage in it when we absolutely have to, and even then probably not very confidently or very well.

This is why we stay stuck.

As Executive Director and CEO of WIN (Women in Negotiation) Summit, I spend a lot of my time speaking with women about negotiation, taking their pulse on their negotiation skills and asking questions to uncover why they feel the way they do. WIN Summit has also conducted a survey on this topic and the results aren’t surprising — women need to and want to change their relationship with negotiation in order to become better advocates for themselves and by extension for their companies.  

Through my conversations and our research, here are the three main reasons women don’t negotiate and how to overcome them.

1. They have low self-worth.

This is a tough one. So many of us give away our power and our value so often that we’ve stopped realizing we’re doing it. Women have been conditioned by media, misogynistic culture, subliminal and overt messaging, and even their education that they are meant to play nice, sweet, and accept what is given to them. 

This messaging wreaks havoc on our ability to uncover our own value, tune into ourselves and our heart centers and see our worth accurately. 

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for this molotov cocktail to our confidence. But for starters, I would suggest keeping a WIN Journal documenting your accomplishments in a very small and measurable way. At the end of each day or week, record three things that you are proud you accomplished — or three wins. It might be a conversation you had, a work goal you set for yourself or an assignment you turned in. Whatever it is, write it down. After a few months, go back and spend a few minutes reading it.  

It is our tendency as humans to focus on the lack rather than what we have. This exercise will give you the time to pause and reflect on all that you have accomplished instead of all that you have not.  

Another suggestion would be to describe yourself, not through your own eyes but through the eyes of your best friend or sister, or partner — ideally a person who loves you and sees your positive attributes, your talents and skills. If you’re having trouble getting into that headspace, ask them to do it for you. Then, read what they wrote out loud, five times in a row, and let it sink in. Then, try to write it yourself.  

Finally, if you are really struggling, hire a coach or seek out therapy to help you dig deeper into what might be getting in your way. Do the hard work to get back to yourself  — because it is truly hard to convince someone else of your value if you have not found it yet for yourself. 

2. Fear of rejection and hearing “no.”

We don’t like to hear no. In fact, we hate it so much that many of us do backbends and somersaults to avoid it. We stay in the safety zone, where things come easier, where we know we can do well. Putting ourselves out there and risking something — whether it be a bad grade, a public failure, a personal rejection or a professional one — feels too painful.  Unfortunately, this doesn't do us any favors in the long term. It keeps us safe, yes, but it also keeps us stagnant. 

We need to get better at hearing “no,” and tolerating it — and maybe, I dare say, even embracing it. I would challenge you to see “no” not as a be-all-end-all, but as a clue, a piece of information that you are getting that will help steer you towards a yes. 

I know this is counterintuitive, but when you hear “no,” you are getting a gift from the other person that enables you to then try and uncover the “why.”  The “why” behind the “no” can make all the difference, and through unearthing that, you can create value in the conversation that will ultimately potentially lead to a yes. So dig deeper.  

If you keep hitting a wall, well then see “no” as an acronym for “next opportunity.” Use it as a pivot point or demonstrate tenacity by asking for an opportunity to revisit the conversation at a later date. Some doors are not meant to open for you but those closed doors will ultimately lead you to the right open one.

3. Fear of backlash. 

This more externally-driven fear is hard to reframe. After all, bias is real and damaging. The world is not always fair and it is never impartial. Women, and especially women of color, have to walk a superfine tightrope, balancing their needs and wants along with the world’s perceptions of how they are supposed to act or talk. If we step off this line, we might fall or get pushed down.

On a societal level, on a policy level, and on a human level, we need to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to change the culture in our institutions and our workplaces.  However, this will take time and require more than a few corporate workshops, or new corporate handbooks. It will require leadership to change cultures through deeply listening to the truths and experiences of its employees, creating new norms and setting the example from the top down. It will require workplaces to embrace more transparency around hiring processes, equal compensation and policies that help create a more even playing field and reward unseen, unpaid labor, such as parental leave policies and more flexible working hours.  

On a personal level, when we are fearful of negotiating because of potential bias, we give into a precedent rather than challenging it. The best we can do when faced with bias in a negotiation is hold onto our dignity, keep calm, and root our arguments back to the facts, and the truth. When we show up authentically, with the facts, we can be both assertive in our stance, but also kind, and that is a truly winning combination. 

When there is a strong relationship at play, use the opportunity as a teaching moment, approach it respectfully and give the person the benefit of doubt to help keep them from getting defensive or feeling attacked. From this place, they are most likely to be able to hear you, and then perhaps you can use this negative experience to sensitize someone to something they otherwise would not have realized. 

Keep in mind, many of us want to do and say the right thing, but we are all susceptible to making mistakes along the way. Through strong relationships and the right packaging, we can help create a safer environment for those that are feeling marginalized or the victims of bias.

These three obstacles are real and understandable and require a deep head shift, courage and a lot of negotiating practice before they begin to dissipate — but over time and with repetition they will. 

If you are looking for a place to develop your negotiation skills, and begin to overcome some of your own resistance to negotiation, or if you are already far into that journey and are looking for additional ways to sharpen your skills and learn from women at the top of their field, don’t miss out on WIN Summit 2022: Lift As We Rise, the premiere female-focused negotiation training and leadership development event, this June 1st, from computers everywhere. Learn from world renowned negotiation trainers and academicians from Columbia, Harvard, and more, as well as the top thought leaders, business leaders and founders on best practices around negotiation, leadership and DEI.  Most sessions qualify for CLE and SHRM credits. You can learn more and register here.


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Daniella Kahane is the Executive Director and CEO of WIN (Women in Negotiation) Summit.

What’s your no. 1 piece of negotiation advice? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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