Fighting Sexism in Negotiations
“He called me ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ during our negotiation and it offended me. I have practiced law for a number of years, and I felt like he was diminishing me, my professionalism and my experience. On the other hand, he was elderly and I understand that some in his generation might not intend this to be demeaning. What should I do, next time, from a negotiation perspective?”
This question, from a recent training program attendee, raises difficult sexism and related issues. First, however, let me be clear: sexist comments like these are wholly inappropriate in a professional negotiation setting and in most other settings as well (in an employment context it might even constitute an element of harassment).
The reality, however, is that some individuals continue to make these comments. So we need to consider how to most effectively respond.
Here are my suggestions. I’ve also created a training on this topic. You can learn more about that here.
1. Do your homework – gather strategic intelligence
There is an extremely high likelihood this individual has made similar comments in the past. In fact, this person almost certainly has a reputation for doing so. Find out. Do your due diligence. Talk with others who have negotiated with him in the past.
Determine if these past comments reflected a conscious effort to change the negotiation power dynamic or reflected a more unconscious generational way of interacting with members of the opposite sex. I don’t recommend either – but your strategic response should vary depending on what you learn.
You also don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Evaluate how others have previously dealt with this person. This will help you design a strategic response and avoid just instinctively reacting, which can be highly counterproductive.
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2. Evaluate your and your client’s goals
Let’s say your research reveals that your counterpart regularly makes sexist comments to try to put his counterparts on the defensive. Also assume that the negotiation will likely be highly competitive, involve just a few zero-sum issues, and that your clients don’t want a future relationship.
Your and your client’s goal then, with your response, should be to send a clear and unequivocal message that such comments cross the line, will not be tolerated and that you should be taken seriously and treated professionally.
How can you send this message? Confront the perpetrator the first time this occurs and warn him that further sexist comments will force you to report his behavior to the appropriate authorities for disciplinary action. Then send a follow up email documenting these comments. A strong, direct response is warranted in these circumstances.
Alternatively, let’s say you’re on a cruise with your business investors and partners and their families. During a group dinner after everyone has had a few drinks, one of your elderly investors makes a sexist comment to you while also expressing an interest in investing more in your company.
Should you aggressively confront him during the dinner, escalating it? Probably not. Your goal here, presumably, would be to stop similar comments and not cause a bigger issue.
Perhaps take this person aside later, in private, and express that you find such comments inappropriate for many reasons – in part because of how it makes you feel, and politely request that he stop making them.
Many would also consider just ignoring these comments in this or similar circumstances. It’s not optimal, of course. And there may be a societal cost. But it just may not be worth addressing it if:
- this investor has no history of making sexist remarks;
- you tend to be a conflict avoider personality-wise and discussing it with him makes you intensely uncomfortable; and
- his comments have no real impact on the negotiation or on you.
Bottom line: evaluate your and/or your client’s goals in determining the most effective response.
3. Don’t let it negatively impact your strategic moves
My wife used to practice law and faced a number of older male lawyers who regularly treated young women lawyers in a sexist way, including with inappropriate comments during negotiations. While my wife sometimes directly addressed their inexcusable behavior, she found that the best long-term response was to aggressively negotiate and prove her mettle in the legal arena itself.
She knew that none of her counterparts’ comments made a substantive difference in terms of negotiation leverage or true power – unless she let them. And she didn’t. This sent a powerful message that they must respect and treat her as an equal.
Latz’s Lesson: Sexist comments have no place in negotiations. But whether you directly or indirectly address or ignore them, do your research and ensure your strategic response helps you accomplish your negotiation goals.
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Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He also has two bestselling books Gain the Edge! and The Real Trump Deal: An eye-opening Look at How He Really Negotiates. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.
If “honey” or “sweetie” offended someone that much, I would not want to do business with them!
I think the wisest course of action would be to avoid using those terms in a professional environment because you don’t know how it could be taken. There are those who use “honey” and “sweetie” to be demeaning. Why risk having yourself lumped into that group, if that is not how you intend it?
I like your comments and analysis. will share with my son and daughter.
Thank you for your comment Frank.
Honestly, the everyday sexism I encounter is not from come-ons — but from straight-up not being listened to.
Thank you for your comment. I’m sure that is a common experience. It certainly was the difference in treatment that Paula Stone Williams noticed after her gender transition, as she discusses in this Ted Talk: https://youtu.be/lrYx7HaUlMY
Great read. As a male I consider sexism as a most primitive way to show lack of masculinity. Most men do not understand, that women feel more, wider and differently – but to understand it, you need to be emotional creature. A word can be very bad touch. This applies not only to negotiations. It applies to life overall.
Thank you Tomasz for sharing your thoughts.
I agree with lady on this one. The use of demeaning words is not the real issue. In negotiations, listening is important – as is being believed. When women are not heard and are not believed when they say something, negotiations are needlessly slowed.
To Fred’s comment – it’s not a matter of offense, t’s a matter of frustration in knowing that your client may be suffering because your opponent is sexist.
Maybe this helps. Imagine you are an older gentleman negotiating something. The opposing party speaks slowly but loudly, brushes aside your stated concerns (and accuses you of making a mountain out of a molehill), pats you on the knee or shoulder and directs their comments to the junior person sitting next to you. If you say something, they don’t believe you until the junior person nods in confirmation.
Thank you for that perspective Dana.
“He called me ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ during our negotiation and it offended me…. What should I do, next time, from a negotiation perspective?”
Don’t get ‘offended’. It’s too predictable the current culture of offence. You are bigger than that. Showing offence will get you nowhere in negotiation. He is trying to unsettle you, to his advantage. Stay settled. Ignore his ploy and get down to the business for which you are being paid; that is, focus on the matter under negotiation. After the show is over, tell him what you think of his style, if you can be bothered.