Negotiating should not be viewed as a tool to overcome obstacles and solve problems. However, many women of colour (WOC), view it as a privilege that overlooks the leverage they have. How can WOC respond to being forced to say yes, or feeling guilty for saying no when they are not asked? Based on the authors’ respective work in women’s leadership development, including more than 1,000 interviews with professional and executive WOC, an upcoming book, and two decades of research on gender and negotiation, they explore how negotiation tools could help WOC have more agency and be more selective in what they accept — and what they push back on — at work.
Negotiating on your behalf can be difficult, and there are not always easy opportunities, especially if it’s not something you feel comfortable with. You may not know your ideal outcome.
Layered on top of these challenges is an American culture that often discourages women — especially women of color (WOC) — from self-advocating, particularly when it comes to grasping greater power and resources or saying no to undervalued work. We have seen many WOC feel the need to remain silent and be thankful for what they have. This is a common theme in our interviews and teaching. They also often report a reasonable fear of backlash if they strive beyond others’ expectations or push back on additional workplace asks.
*Negotiating should not be seen as a way to overcome obstacles and solve problems. However, many WOC see it as a privilege that overlooks the leverage they have. How can WOC respond to being forced to say yes, or feeling guilty for saying no when they are not asked? Based on our respective work in women’s leadership development, including more than 1,000 interviews with professional and executive WOC, an upcoming book, and two decades of research on gender and negotiation, we explore how negotiation tools could help WOC have more agency and be more selective in what they accept — and what they push back on — at work.
Why WOC Don’t Negotiate
The WOC that we interviewed didn’t feel encouraged to negotiate. Many people described being told by others to “go along in order to get along.” This could be for a variety of reasons. Black women discovered that their ambitions and healthy self-esteem led to them being misinterpreted as aggressive, angry, difficult or demanding. Many Asian cultures instill a respect for authority, which creates expectations that people should follow. Many Latina immigrants are warned by their families not to step on others’ toes and taught to keep their heads low.
These women move up the corporate ladder with few negotiation strategies that are tailored to their unique roles. WOC interviewed us and found that negotiation often meant formal, contractual dealmaking. These women were most likely to be offered jobs or worked with clients as examples of negotiation. This notion of formal negotiation is often associated with white male norms. This stereotype also obscures the everyday opportunities for WOC get what they want and need at work.
WOC shared their concern that the advice given to white women such as “lean into” or “just tell no” doesn’t fit their needs. White women still face obstacles at the negotiation table. However, they may have access to a wider range of strategies than WOC. Ours and others’ research on intersectional invisibility shows that WOC still contend with standing out while also being marginalized. Many are told they’re “exceptional,” which implicitly raises expectations about them conforming and not drawing attention to themselves. We met women who didn’t see everyday negotiation opportunities with other women about their time, their value or the spaces they occupy.
We want to discuss and model what WOC might do if asked to assume additional roles and tasks at work.
Let us examine the professional and social positions of women in four scenarios based on our research and experiences. WOC might feel “trapped” under these circumstances. However, a negotiation approach can lead to better outcomes for her, her company, and those around her. Research in the field and laboratory has shown that women can avoid being backtracked if they have options and ideas that are mutually beneficial.
The Job-Within-Your-Full-Time Job Trap
WOC often have to assume responsibilities that are not related to the job they were hired for. Many of the women interviewed felt that the “job within the job”, especially in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is becoming more difficult.
Isabel is a highly-motivated marketing manager who rose quickly in the advertising industry. Her reputation is for being a strong advocate for Black and Brown markets, particularly when it comes selling products. Isabel is the voice of diverse customers because she is the only person who interacts with clients of color at her agency.
She found herself taking on informal DE&I roles in the company, in addition to her regular job duties. Isabel was eventually asked by a senior leader to assume the DE&I leadership role in the San Francisco office. The job description was vague and the role itself was not well defined. Isabel was impressed by the leadership’s willingness to listen to her thoughts on DE&I questions. However, she soon realized that this opportunity was more work than her full-time marketing job.
Isabel shared her feelings about the situation with a friend. She asked Isabel, “Where’s the upside?” Isabel replied that she enjoys DE&I work and finds it meaningful. The work is time-consuming and can also affect her health. She was curious about how much impact she could make on the company’s culture and whether it would be sustainable to add to her already busy schedule. This work would be well-recognized, particularly if it took her away from her marketing responsibilities as well as the job she was paid for.
Isabel could negotiate to define the role she wants to play.
Isabel could value the additional DE&I work as an added benefit to her job if she is interested. This could be done by talking to her supervisor about prioritizing her current responsibilities. For example, she might look for ways to temporarily delegate or put on hold some of her work while she transitions into the DE&I position.
Isabel may also have a discussion about her time in each role and the possible implications for her career. Although the work is meaningful to her personally, it’s not what she was hired for. She may also not want to lose sight of her marketing strategy. She might also want to explore whether the DE&I role could offer her opportunities to increase her visibility with leadership and negotiate for opportunities that would enhance the visibility of her personal contributions, along with the company’s commitment to DE&I.
If the negotiation process shows that the DE&I work in her company isn’t valued (e.g. they aren’t willing to reprioritize the workload or give visibility to the work), then she should consider whether she’s the right person — or the only — for the job. The position should help Isabel and her company. She may not want to accept the role if it is unclear and leaders don’t see it as valuable. If she feels the risks of outright saying no are too high, she could use a “yes, and” strategy and negotiate for clear boundaries and expectations around the role in order to avoid mission creep.
The Death-by-a-Thousand-Paper-Cuts Trap
Many of the women we met were among very few WOC within their organizations. They are responsible for much of the mentoring and sponsoring as well as barrier-breaking.
Maria was hired three years ago and has at least 10 peers at her mid-management level. Maria is constantly asked to schedule Zoom calls and send invites for meetings. Maria is the only woman and WOC in her department. While she values pitching in for the greater good of the company, she realizes that she’s expecte