Likeability and competence: female negotiators and first impressions

What role does being a female negotiator play in Australia’s persistent gender wage gap?

Speaking to her co-authored research (with Carol Kulik, University of South Australia) during a 21 May seminar as a guest of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, Professor Mara Olekalns detailed the findings of simulated employment contract negotiation scenarios from 160 participants in a study that has identified the role of perceptions of ‘competence’ and ‘likeability’ in predicting the economic and social benefits for women negotiators. Although no less competitive than men during negotiations, women were found to obtain poorer outcomes in such instances, including expectations that their earnings would be at least 30% less than that of their male counterparts.

Professor Olekalns also highlighted a range of female-specific characteristics which can first influence negotiations. A woman’s propensity to be less likely to initiate negotiations, to have lower aspirations and fewer items to address, to cease negotiations when minimum requirements were met, and a likelihood of accepting a first offer (in an effort to avoid pushing through moments of adversity during negotiations), were presented as key.

Furthermore, notes Mara, there are stereotypes which capture perceptions around the way women should behave in these circumstances:

“Women [are expected to] be warm, likeable, and other-orientated. Women who violate these expectations [consequently] elicit backlash. These violations can be positive or negative. The negative violations – in an effort to improve economic outcomes – will [however] erode social outcomes.”

Professor Mara Olekalns
Professor Mara Olekalns

Mara and Carol have, as a result, asked whether this agentic behaviour can be reframed by considering the effect of early impressions in offsetting such stereotype violations? The sequence of presenting objective information around one’s competence or likeability, or subjective information around competence and warmth was considered, as was the question of whether the sex of the other negotiator played a role in their forming of first impressions.

The team consequently identified three factors during the study’s simulated negotiations which anchored first impressions, to thus offer the female negotiator an avenue for maximum offset of backlash. First, her likeability must exceed her perceived competence. Second, attributing her competence to a team rather than herself was key. Third, establishing in the first instance a likeability which is perceived as genuine also played a role.

And whilst all-female was the preferred make up for this study’s participants, its findings also show that women need to focus on reframing ‘competitive’ negotiations to ‘problem-solving’ ones in an effort to change the negotiating dynamic. This again acted as an anchor upon which perceptions were hinged – likeability vs. competence/ economic vs. social capital benefits.

In concluding her presentation, Professor Olekalns conceded that the findings lent towards an aversion of women benefiting from negotiation with other women, and that the path to harnessing gender stereotypes for women is reinforced when the female negotiator shares credit with a team, and conveys impressions of genuine likeability over a high level of competence. And although women do accrue economic capital by demonstrating their competence, this study shows that if one anchors upon competence and conveys a high ability, they will neither lose nor gain.

On a final note, Mara observed that women cannot build both social and economic capital concurrently during negotiations, simply because the outcomes are anchored upon different things.

Contact the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing for access to a videorecording of this seminar: [email protected].