A now forgotten concept in the business psychology literature is the paradoxically named ‘fear of success.’ The idea, popularised almost 50 years ago, was that whereas men fear failure, women fear success. The latter did so because it threatened their femininity in the eyes of others. Only men are allowed to succeed.
The results of studies in this area were equivocal. There were too many ‘ifs and buts’; too many caveats; too many exceptions. It depends on what type of success or failure and what type of woman or man.
Yet there remains no doubt about and little change in sex-role stereotypes both in and out of work. Masculine characteristics are assertiveness, independence, power and self-reliance. Feminine characteristics are caring, helpfulness and sharing. These stereotypes common in many cultures have an “ought to be” about them. So there is a backlash if you break the rules, act out of role.
Workplace success is usually associated with male traits of aggression, emotional stability and rationality. If women manifest these behaviours they are seen as hard, tough, dislikeable. Their social penalty for counter-stereotypic behaviour is to be seen as a ‘selfish bitch’ or “Queen Bee”. Period.
So if women behave in-role – communal, kind, nurturing – they end up being paid less, being lower on the social ladder, and having fewer career prospects. So it’s a double-bind, one which underlies the fear of success idea. The cost of success is to be seen as less likeable, less feminine, less co-operative.
This is partly why females are not seen to be good negotiators: successful negotiating tactics are stereotypically male.
However there do seem to be circumstances where gender stereotype is not very quickly activated, so allowing women negotiators get better results. Where resources are plentiful women do OK. And of course the more senior the woman, the better she does.
But the real clincher is where women negotiate on behalf of others, be they family, clients, or team members. If a woman is firm, demanding and assertive on behalf of others she appears not to face the sexist backlash (or at least not so much).
So the issue is self-vs. other-advocating. Researchers in the field show that female lawyers who advocate on behalf of their clients suffer little social backlash, denigration or career capping. Equally women who negotiate on behalf of their work team are regarded just as well as their male counterparts.
On the other hand becoming one of the guys doesn’t work as well. The question is of course a balance between picking up some of the male positive characteristics while not losing the female positive stereotypes.
So what advice to give women who have to negotiate at work. Catherine Tinsley and colleagues at George Washington University offer some evidence-based advices
Tinsley, C.H., Cheldelin, S.I., Schneider, A.K., & Amantullah, E.T. (2009). Women at the bargaining table: Pitfalls and prospects. Negotiation Journal, 25 (2): 233-248.
• If you want a promotion, bonus or salary increase, frame you request in terms of your crucial contribution to your department or team unit. It shows you are caring, have concern for others and espouse communality.
• Swap negotiating roles with other females so that they advocate for you, and you them, or take it in turns to support each other.
• Reframe the whole process in your own mind as one that benefits the whole social group. It provides gender equity for all.
• Time your requests well, opting for favourable conditions because self-advocation is seen as less unacceptable in times of plenty vs. scarcity or threat.
• Appeal to common goals across teams, departments, sections so stressing shared interests and cooperation.
• Negotiate in teams, hetero- or homogeneous, and be seen as a team member, but if you become the team leader, assert always that you are negotiating on behalf of all members.
• Argue from your position rather than your personality/gender. For example say “It behoves me as a manager,” “I would not be a good director if I did not.”
• Stress, where possible and appropriate, the idea of “out of the norm behaviour” by asserting that very point. “Normally this issue would not trouble me but…”
• Rather than just being an unusual female negotiator a woman may benefit from highlighting her multiple roles such as employee, manager, community supporter etc.
• Network with others who are less gender sensitive, who see individual differences more in ability, experience and personality terms than simply the great gender dichotomy.
Paradoxically, political correctness may prevent women (and men) discussing these issues openly. Others may enjoy attracting the feminist label and having a good fight though it may not further their cause terribly well.
It can be fun to do some simply social psychological experiments as part of a teaching device. Let people rate or discuss vignettes or scenarios where people (half male and half female) are successful, devious, self-defeating etc. at negotiations. Be careful to include the issue of self-vs. other-advocacy. And for more fun, do a role play where people have to play the opposite gender in negotiation.
The bottom line: sex/gender stereotypes exist. They present, for women more than men, difficulties associated with expected and acceptable behaviours. There may be ways, rather than to challenge or flout stereotype rules, to work within them to achieve advantage
Perhaps, little more than self-defeating trickery that does little to effect real gender equality? Or perhaps pragmatic advice about working in an unfair world. .