Women Negotiate Financial Success, Charmingly
At work, women may be out of their binders, but they remain in a bind.
Office life presents women with a seemingly impossible challenge: to be perceived as both affable and effective. Because kindness can be mistaken for incompetence and assertiveness for bitchery, personal and professional goals may appear to require contradictory tactics. However, recent research by Laura Kray and her colleagues indicates that the use of feminine charm—a mixture of friendly and flirtatious behavior—may offer a way to subvert this dilemma in the context of negotiation.
Kray, a professor of business at the University of California, Berkeley, studies gender differences in strategic interactions. While discussing some of her work with a male colleague, Kray was struck by his take on female negotiators.
“He said, ‘Well, in my experience, I find it really hard to say no to a charming woman,’” she recalled. “I wanted to explore whether there’s actually any validity to his perception.”
Kray’s study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, dissects the phenomenon of feminine charm to determine whether this technique might help women at the negotiation table. “We predicted that feminine charm may be a way for women to navigate the double bind that they normally face, which is that they’re either perceived as likeable but weak, or they’re perceived as strong but not likeable,” Kray explained. “We thought that if the right balance was struck between flirting and being friendly that women may mitigate that trade-off and be perceived as both strong and likeable, and that’s what we found.”
Though this paper represents the first analysis of charm in the scientific literature, Kray is not unique in seeking a strategy that balances likability with effectiveness. Traditional studies, however, tend to avoid analyzing “flirtatiousness,” instead focusing on women’s use of warm feminine cues in concert with assertive negotiation. Kray believes that these techniques can be supplemented with charm, which she describes as “just one tool out of many for building confidence.”
Kray’s experiment included a virtual negotiation of car price, wherein participants bid for vehicles with a hypothetical female buyer, “Sue.” Sellers received one of two written descriptions of Sue’s negotiation style. In one script, she was depicted either as charming (“[Sue] leans forward, briefly touches your arm…somewhat playfully, she winks at you…”); in the other, she appeared more stern (“Sue says ‘I’m looking forward to talking over the financials with you and hopefully working out a deal today. Let’s get down to business’”). After negotiating with Sue, sellers evaluated her friendliness and flirtatiousness, as well as her apparent concern for self or others.
Kray found that men who negotiated with the charming Sue offered significantly better prices than those negotiating with her neutral alter-ego. Offers from women were not affected by the Sue’s coquetry. Further analysis of the data revealed ratings of friendliness to be associated with poorer economic outcomes for Sue, and a perception that she was concerned for others. Conversely, ratings of flirtatiousness were associated with the perception that Sue had greater concern for herself, which translated into more money in Sue’s hypothetical pocket.
These results confirmed Kray’s hypothesis that the flirtatious components of charm may reduce the impact of friendliness, which often hinders financial success. Kray clarified that, here, the perceived “concern for self” was not a distasteful selfishness, but rather a form of assertiveness, conducive to negotiation. “If someone is just being kind of friendly, then people say, ‘Oh, she’s sort of a pushover,’” Kray summarized. “But if they say, ‘She seems to be taking a special liking to me and she seems assertive in doing so,’ then people say, ‘She’s strong and I better pay her.’”
To test her hypotheses in a more realistic setting, Kray studied face-to-face negotiations between undergraduate students in mixed-sex pairs. For this simulation, women assigned to a feminine charm group received instructions “to be animated in their body movements, make frequent eye contact with their partner, smile, and laugh.” Charmers or unanimated controls then negotiated with male counterparts over the selling price of a biotechnology company.
Kray found that, contrary to the results of her previous study, the use of charm in the live trial predicted poorer outcomes for female sellers. Deeper analysis, however, revealed consistency with her earlier findings. Though charm perceived as friendliness was correlated with reduced returns for females, charm perceived as more flirtatious predicted improved monetary outcomes. “They did better economically, to the degree that they were perceived as flirtatious, as opposed to merely friendly,” Kray described.
Though both experiments imply a link between female flirtation and financial gain, Kray acknowledged that there is more work to be done. “We want to replicate and extend this research to see what are the boundaries of the effect and how widespread is its usefulness,” she explained. While additional data may confirm the utility of charm, issues of tact could complicate practical dissemination of these findings.
“I do think there is something about this more winsome, more feminine approach,” related Seth Freeman, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at Columbia University. “[But] I’m shy about recommending that because I don’t want to turn my class or my talks into finishing school suggestions for Scarlett O’Hara.”
Even if women actively attempt to boost their charm factor, such efforts may be for naught. Kray’s results suggest that the potency of flirtation depends critically on men’s interpretation of feminine signals. “How women are perceived is sort of in the eye of the beholder,” commented Alex Van Zant, a doctoral student at Berkeley and co-author on the paper. “It’s really about how the person you’re negotiating with perceives your behavior… that’s what dictates the economic outcome.”
Heavy dependence on male perception suggests that office flirtation may be a dicey game—the tactic could fail, or worse, damage the woman’s reputation. Shira Mor, a doctoral student at Columbia Business School, voiced some reservations about recommending this practice, both in negotiation, and beyond. “This is part of what women do on an every day basis in their professional lives, regardless of if they’re business women, engineers, or social workers,” commented Mor. “Women’s flirtatiousness will not always be perceived as competence. If it’s a fifty-fifty chance that this thing is going to work, why would you take the risk?”