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Barrett S. Avigdor, J.D. Headshot

Getting to Yes in the Negotiation of the Sexes

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Co-authored by Cathy L. Greenberg, Ph.D.

According to the Shriver Report, the War of the Sexes ended in a draw and has been replaced by the Negotiation of the Sexes. That is a true but incomplete statement. To make it complete, we need to know what kind of negotiation are we talking about and who the parties are at the table.

The most common understanding of the term "negotiation" is a sort of civilized, adversarial activity. A more subtle and productive view of negotiation is parties coming together to find a way to meet all of their interests (or at least most of them) in a collaborative and creative way.

Interest based negotiation, made famous by the book "Getting to Yes" by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project, is the kind of negotiation of the sexes that we want to see. The "getting to yes" approach is based on the premise that a good negotiation will be driven by the interests of the parties rather than positions. Good negotiators will find ways to "expand the pie" so that they are more ways to meet both parties' key interests. Instead of "I win, you lose" the approach ends in an "I won some and lost some and so did you". Some have criticized this approach as overly optimistic and impractical in the real world of bare knuckled business or political negotiations. We can think of no more intractable problem than the ending of apartheid in South Africa. Roger Fisher was brought in to assist both the white South African government and the ANC to apply this approach in their negotiations. It worked. Many large corporations, including Accenture, use this approach in the negotiation of their largest and most complex deals. It works there too. The bigger and more important the negotiation, the more essential it is that it be based on meeting the key interests of all parties in a collaborative way.

The negotiation between the sexes is certainly big and important. If men and women see success in the work place and at home as a zero sum game -- I win, you lose -- then we will not move beyond where we are today. Women are now half the work force and more than half of the middle management but men still hold about 97% of the C-level positions in American corporations. Research, including that of the Shriver Report, shows that the reason so few women are at the highest levels of corporate America is that they are not willing to make the sacrifices in terms of time away from family that it takes to rise to the top. Of course, there are other reasons but that is the predominant one. It is also clear that the vast majority of corporations are run by rules -- both written and unwritten -- that have changed little since the 1950s when the white collar workforce was comprised almost exclusively of men with wives that stayed at home. The Shriver Report also contains research that shows that many men see women in the workplace as a threat to their ability to be breadwinners and, therefore, to their masculinity. As long as men hold the positions of power and see women as a threat to their success, we will progress little.

Instead of a zero sum negotiation with a winner and a loser, we hope to see the Negotiation of the Sexes as one in which the parties both seek to understand each others' needs and work collaboratively to find solutions that make everyone successful.

Who are the parties in the Negotiation of the Sexes? It is more than just men and women. It is also employers, both public and private. This is a three way negotiation, make no mistake. Leaving any one of the three parties out of the conversation means you will not reach an optimal result. When it comes to employers, the buzzword these days is "flexibility in the work place". In the research we conducted of over 1000 working mothers for our bestselling book "What Happy Working Mothers Know", the top of their wish list was to have a flexible schedule at work. Working mothers can get it all done they just can't get it all done on a rigid schedule. Too often, flexibility is considered to be a women's issue because women are in the forefront of demanding it. We need to change "women's issues" to "people's issues". Men as well as women care about their children or ageing parents to be well cared for and value workplace policies that enable good care. It goes beyond family obligations because we know that people who have the time to pursue interests and relationships outside of work are less stressed and do a better job at work - whether they are women or men.

Flexible work schedules, adjustable career paths, helping people return to the workforce after taking time off are all good for men as well as women. Creating family friendly, or more accurately, people friendly, work places is in everyone's best interest.

The female president of a well known US university realized that a disproportionate number of tenured professors were men. Looking into it further, she realized that the demands of reaching tenure arrived at a time when many female professors were starting families and they simply chose not to take on the additional stress during those years. Instead of creating an alternative track to tenure, which would have been perceived as a mommy track, she simply extended the time for everyone. She was not surprised to see more women staying and reaching tenured positions. She was surprised by her ability to attract even better talent among men who appreciated the ability to lead a more balanced life while staying on the tenure track.

The US economy is increasingly built on knowledge workers. As we continue to export, not just manufacturing but also low end professional services work, the pressure on US businesses will be to attract and retain highly creative workers who are experts in their fields. Demographics indicate that the labor pool is shrinking which means that there will be tremendous competition for the best talent. Research has shown that, once people make enough money to sustain the lifestyle of their choice, money is no longer a differentiator between employers. The companies that will win the best talent, and therefore, be the most successful, are those that have a people friendly culture that allows men and women to have a satisfying life at the same time as a good career.

The Negotiation of the Sexes should be a three way negotiation among men, women and employers each with their own set of interests who also understand that they have an interest in the success of the other two.

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