By Deborah M. Kolb and Mara Olekalns
By January 2017 we may have an unprecedented situation in global politics: three women leaders in the G7. Angela Merkel of Germany and Theresa May of Great Britain may be joined by a third, Hillary Clinton of the United States. What differences, if any, can we expect in the style and substance of geopolitical talks if there are three women leaders at the table, or at least setting the agenda and perhaps the tone for their negotiating teams?
It’s obviously difficult to predict, but the extensive literature on gender and how it plays out in negotiations gives us some clues.
They will be strong negotiators… Researchers have conducted literally hundreds of studies to assess the differences between male and female negotiators, and most emphasize women’s deficiencies: A woman is less likely to initiate, she makes concessions too readily, she is less competitive and more risk averse, and she achieves inferior results relative to men, at least when it comes to economic outcomes. But there are very important and often overlooked caveats to this research. When women leaders negotiate on behalf of others and when they have power and status, they perform exceedingly well.
Given the positions of Merkel, May, and potentially Clinton, and the fact that all are or would be acting in the best interests of their (very powerful) countries, you would therefore expect all three to be effective in any negotiation. That said, perceptions of whether they acquired their power legitimately could detract from assessments of their performance. That’s what happened to Julia Gillard, the first and only woman prime minister of Australia. Clinton could be similarly hurt by claims of a “rigged” election.
…and also slightly more collaborative. One of the explanations for women’s relative underperformance in certain negotiations is that they emphasize relational outcomes over economic ones. But how accurate is this perception? There is scant evidence that women negotiators treat male and female counterparts differently, or that pairs or groups of women reach better agreements. Indeed, the opposite is often true. We saw this in the initial meeting between Theresa May and Angela Merkel. It kicked off with comments such as “We have…two women here who…just want to get on with the job” (May) and “I am sure we are both going to get on because we are both vicar’s daughters” (Merkel). But the German chancellor demonstrated her toughness and economic focus with regard to Brexit negotiations by asserting, “There will be no cherry-picking (of the deal) here.”
Clinton seems to follow a similar playbook. In her autobiography Hard Choices, she emphasizes how important “face saving” is to negotiations: “Allow the other party to vent” and “spare them from public defeat” are two of the five principles she lists in the context of talks with China over a dissident. But these collaborative tactics did not stop her from earning a reputation as a formidable negotiator as a senator and U.S. secretary of state. We should expect cordial relationships between May, Merkel, and Clinton (if elected), but also hard-nosed bargaining if it is required.
They’ll be criticized no matter what. Can a woman negotiator be both competent and likeable? Not very easily, the research suggests. Women are expected to demonstrate a high degree of concern for others, and they often pay a social cost when they don’t. So even if women do secure a good deal for themselves, their organization, or their country, they may be vilified for the tactics they used to do so and for the very outcome they achieved.
The women leaders we’re talking about have already been subject to some rather strong critique. Merkel has been dubbed “Angie the Snake”; May (like Margaret Thatcher) has been described as an “iron lady” as well as rigid and a “bloody difficult woman to work with”; and Clinton is often called a “bitch” and “shrill.” Again we’re reminded of Australia’s Gillard, who negotiated to build coalitions but was accused of selling out and being untrustworthy, with calls to “ditch the witch.” This tension can have implications for how any results achieved in negotiation are received.
When under great pressure to secure a deal that meets a variety of perhaps unrealistic expectations (Merkel and May with Brexit, Clinton with a variety of policy initiatives she’d like to initiate if elected), these women will certainly be blamed and criticized, probably more and in different ways than their male counterparts.
They could shift the agenda. There is a perception that, in the political arena, women advocate for different issues. Hillary Clinton’s statement in 1995 in Beijing that “women’s rights are human rights” exemplifies this perception, and in the platform she is currently advocating, those issues figure prominently. But while there is some evidence that female representation in government helps to get more “soft” issues like this one on the agenda, that doesn’t always translate into new policy, as other political factors come into play.
And leaders like Merkel, May, and Clinton obviously devote as much or more time to “hard” issues like the economy and military intervention. So, again, we expect a balance. For example, as chancellor, Merkel had shown little interest in women’s or children’s issues even though she once had responsibility for that portfolio in Helmut Kohl’s government. But she has been the leader in Europe negotiating to make it possible for Syrian migrants to find a place to settle, and, like Gillard, she may pay a price for it.
Their numbers matter. The dynamics of the G7 could very well change when the number of female leaders moves from just one, Merkel, to potentially three (at least for some period of time, as Merkel faces reelection in 2017). The presence of three women may be a double-edged sword, with the potential to either strengthen or undermine their positions.
Research in executive settings suggests that the mere fact of having more women at the table will increase their perceived competence, likeability, and effectiveness on an individual level, which could cause them all to have greater-than-expected power and could improve the collective intelligence of the group. And that influence could be further enhanced if they use negotiation strategies to form a coalition in support of positions they have in common.
This happened in the U.S. Senate in 2013, when the three female Republican Senators collaborated to negotiate a framework to reopen the federal government. However, when women leaders do form coalitions, there can be negative consequences too. Others may assume that because they are women they are more aligned — and adversarial toward the rest of the group — than they actually are.
They’ll inspire other women — and hopefully change gender stereotypes. Having a trio of female heads of state who advocate for their countries and their agendas and hold their ground in the face of insults and challenges will no doubt empower other women (and girls) to be more confident negotiators — at work and at home. Some will be inspired to speak up, ask for what they want, or play hardball in situations where they might not have done so before. Indeed, May, Merkel, and Clinton’s greatest impact on negotiations may fall outside the realm of geopolitics. Their status as role models could matter a whole lot more.
Source: The Harvard Business Review