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Many women feel uncomfortable asking for more resources, says negotiation expert Fotini Iconomopoulos, posing here on the Puente de Luz pedestrian bridge in Toronto.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Fotini Iconomopoulos is an expert on negotiation in the workplace. But despite consulting globally on the topic with companies from L’Oréal to Walmart and teaching negotiation techniques at York University’s Schulich School of Business, she isn’t immune from being second-guessed on the job.

“I’d walk into these boardrooms deep in the heart of Texas where old white men would say to me, ‘What are you going to teach me, little girl?’” says Ms. Iconomopoulos, author of Say Yes, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get What You Want.

Negotiation can help executive women fight gender bias and get what they need to succeed, from higher salaries to more venture capital for their businesses. But excellent negotiation skills can also help women in another important – and often overlooked – way: to score sufficient budgets and staff so their departments and projects are successful.

Understaffed departments and inadequate funding

A Catalyst study from 2012 showed that male alumni from top business schools had budgets for their projects that were twice as big as those of their female counterparts. Their team head counts were three times larger, too. And a 2019 study of U.S. non-profit CEOs found that amongst service organizations with budgets over $10-million, the average budget for male CEOs was $47-million, while the average budget for female CEOs was $28-million.

Women are more likely to deal with understaffed departments and inadequate funding, which can have long-term effects on their ability to take on more important projects later – often powerful stepping-stones for C-suite promotions.

Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation in Toronto, says underfunded and under-resourced projects are a reflection of a much larger, systemic problem. Female employees, particularly women of colour, trans women and those with a disability, are undervalued, she says.

When you consider that women make approximately 89 cents for every dollar a man earns, “it’s not at all surprising that we should see it reflected in the kind of funding that goes to women’s projects and departments,” Ms. Gunraj says.

Additionally, women tend to be asked to do more with less. The latest Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey states that during the pandemic, women managers were more likely than men to provide emotional support and make sure their employees’ workloads were manageable.

Ms. Iconomopoulos remembers the days when her higher-ups asked her to train other employees on top of her full-time job. “We’re doing more work, but that doesn’t necessarily get recognized,” she says. “And how many women do you know are going to be comfortable saying no?”

Learned behaviours that prioritize harmony

Cherolyn Knapp, a lawyer, mediator, conflict resolution and workplace investigator in Victoria, B.C., often speaks about negotiation and gender dynamics in Canada. She says that one of the reasons women may feel uncomfortable asking for more resources is “gender wiring.”

Women often have an “accommodating” and “harmonizing” leadership style that puts relationships ahead of desired outcomes. Not necessarily inherent traits, they’re likely behaviours that were learned over time.

“It’s like, ‘I don’t want to step on toes. I’ll do what’s needed to make you happy and I’ll figure it out on my end,’” Ms. Knapp says. The problem is that this tactic usually doesn’t work. “It can breed a lot of resentment.”

Ms. Gunraj notes that women shouldn’t need to be “master negotiators” to get what they need. It’s the responsibility of corporate leadership to do some serious soul-searching about systemic bias and flawed corporate policy.

Ms. Iconomopoulos agrees that systemic issues need to be addressed on a larger scale, but in the meantime, honing your negotiation skills makes sense too.

“The truth of the matter is, if we wait for society to catch up, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” she says.

Here are some tips on how to negotiate with confidence:

1. Think about it as collaboration: Ms. Knapp says that when she speaks to women’s groups about the “art” of negotiation, more than a few attendees groan. But that’s because they’re not thinking about the exchange in the right way, she says. Negotiation is actually about collaboration. “Think about it as a joint problem to solve,” she adds.

2. Make it about the team: Ms. Iconomopoulos notes that studies show many women feel uncomfortable advocating for themselves, worrying they’ll be perceived as greedy, but have no problem with advocating on behalf of their team. If that’s how you feel, use it, she says. Whatever works.

3. Let the data do the talking: If you’re worried about possible post-negotiation backlash, come to the table prepared with data, says Ms. Iconomopoulos. Just as you’d enter salary negotiations with information about market conditions and competitive rates, find out whether other teams are better funded or have more resources. Then, don’t be afraid to say, “How can we be equipped to achieve even better results for this company?”

4. Pick your moment: Being asked to add yet one more project to your load? That’s the perfect moment to say, “Okay, but I’ll require full-time administrative assistance. Here’s why,” Ms. Knapp says.

5. Make it a multi-step process: One of the biggest mistakes negotiators make is trying to get everything they need all at once and becoming frustrated if the proposal gets shot down, Ms. Knapp says. Instead, ask in stages. Think of negotiation as a strategic chess game.

“You don’t stick your arm on the board and push all your chess pieces over to the other side,” says Ms. Knapp. “You do it one move at a time.”

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