Research

Looking Like a Woman Is Bad for Negotiations


The world of face-based negotiation research has not been good to women of late. First, a study showed that having a fat face can be great for men in negotiations, but not for women. Now researchers say that women may be suffering from another physical feature over which they have no control: looking like women.

A new study by researchers at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management found that people saw womanly features as a sign of passivity and preferred to negotiate against someone who looked feminine. That held true even for men whose faces bore signs of femininity. The study defined being “womanly” not as commanding an elusive feminine air but, for both sexes, as having “less prominent eye-brow ridges, disproportionally shorter faces, less laterally prominent cheek bones, mandibles, and chins, smaller noses and fuller lips resulting in a generally less robust face shape.”

Courtesy Perception Lab

“There is longstanding research that shows that women do more poorly in negotiations,” says Eric Gladstone, a Ph.D. candidate at the Johnson School who co-authored the study, “but what if what if you remove gender from it? It’s probably gender as well, but what if, on top of that, independent of your sex, it’s about the assumptions I make based on the features in your face?”

Indeed, people sized up potential adversaries in seconds, the study found, judging femininity as a liability in men and women alike. Researchers altered photos of men and women to make them look slightly more feminine or masculine, and then asked participants which of the two they would rather face in a negotiation. People were three times as likely to choose a man with a feminine face as an opponent, and about twice as likely to choose a womanly woman. When the roles were switched, and respondents were asked who they would prefer to represent them at the bargaining table, they were nearly twice as likely to pick the manlier man—or woman.

The respect for masculine negotiators translated into a more hostile environment for people with feminine faces. In a follow-up experiment, when people thought they were negotiating with someone ladylike in the face, they tended to demand more from them.

The results are the latest piece of dubious news for men with small faces and women with faces at all. In a recent study, reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, fat-faced men won a package worth $2,200 more in salary negotiations. Women did not benefit from wider visages.

There’s possible good news for lady-faces buried in these findings. Gladstone, the study’s co-author, said women could turn the bias against femininity into an advantage. The perception that women are bad negotiators made people more comfortable engaging with them, the study showed. If women get more time at the negotiating table, Gladstone suggests, they’ll have more chances to claim some of whatever is on offer.

“Through repeated exchange, because people think I am going to be cooperative, I will actually do better,” Gladstone says, adding that even if women win only half the time, they still might end up with more winnings overall than a man whom no one wants to meet in a negotiation. The soft prejudice of low expectations can be upended, in this case, with the first bid. “You catch them off guard, you come in guns blazing, you come in with a really high offer,” Gladstone says. “Play to the stereotypes that already exist.”

Kitroeff is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, covering business education.

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