Bullish: What Men Need to Know About Negotiating With Women

Olivia not impressed

There are lots of books out there intended to help women negotiate with men, by being like men or at least understanding them.

But some nonzero number of men out there could use advice on negotiating with women. I can help.

As I wrote in Bullish Life: Towards A Monstrous Regiment of Women, women now control a few industries, and plenty of (mostly small and medium) companies, and countless departments and small pockets of larger companies. If you wanted to for some reason, you could make an entire career out of dealing only with women.

Women probably don’t dominate the board of directors at your company, but most people don’t report to the board of directors. Most people report to a middle manager.

Whether it’s a man with a female boss, or a man who doesn’t understand why his female peers or subordinates don’t seem to like him (just because we didn’t publicly call you out or punch you doesn’t mean we didn’t want to!), I think men bumping into gender issues is probably now a thing.

Even if you’re a man and all the women in your company are in subordinate positions, I still think that if half the office secretly hates you, you’re a bad leader.

Feel free to send a link to this article to dudes. Here goes.

A brief anecdote about exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about

When I was running an internet marketing firm around 2002, I met with a duo of male entrepreneurs for the purpose of founding a joint project – a portal for the boating industry, henceforth to be called WebBoats.

The idea was that my company would make the website, and these guys – being pretty big in the boating industry – would sell advertising on the site. It kind of seemed like I’d be doing most of the work.

They began the meeting: “We’d like you to make the website and do this list of six other things. We think you should own 25% of the company.”

I said, “Well, that’s not going to work for me. But there are a lot of ways we could play this. Right now, you’re asking me to do 75% of the work, so, in that case, I would want 75% of the company. Or, if you only want me to do 25% of the work, then I’ll own 25% of the company. I’m flexible. There are variety of fair arrangements we could make.”

They said, somewhat sheepishly: “Well, we had to try!”

As in, “Our testicles would have shrunk if we didn’t try to cheat you into being our virtual slave! Now let’s be friends!”

We did not continue to be friends. The project fizzled. I’m not some boy you can beat up on the playground and then continue to be emotionally-repressed friends with, kind of like in Bachelor Party II (I didn’t see the movie; I’m just assuming). I don’t work that way. If you try to cheat me, you have irreparably damaged our relationship.

That was ten years ago. In more recent years, I was working for a large company, billing $x an hour. The guy who managed the budget emailed me – I had just billed 46 hours in a single week. How many more hours would I be billing? Could I cut that down? That’s really kind of a lot of hours.

I had been working my ass off. I was sleep-deprived. My work would be, ultimately, game-changing. The rate I had agreed to do the job at was entirely reasonable.

I replied that the job was nowhere near done, and that I would be billing at least as many hours per week for the next month.

(Before sending my actual response, I contemplated several other possible responses that involved my feeling guilty about doing the work we’d agreed upon, at the agreed-upon rate. A colossal waste of my brain-space. See Bullish Life: What Do You Feel Guilty About Today?)

The reply? “You’re actually way under budget! If you finish at this rate, you’ll get a reputation as a financial genius. It’s just my job to try.”

Does that story make you angry on my behalf? Because I was angry. Who does that?

Dudes. I mean, maybe other people. But mostly dudes.

What men need to know about negotiating with women

If you are my work-friend, and then you try to dick me over in a negotiation “just to see if you can,” or “because that’s how the game is played,”  here is what will happen. I will continue to be polite to you, because I am a professional. But I will actually think that you are:

  • a psychopath
  • untrustworthy
  • a backstabber
  • a socially clueless person

And I will never, ever forget that you were friendly to my face and then tried to get me to do a job for less than I’m worth, or tried to get me to do your work for you. I am like an elephant. I never forget. You think our relationship is disposable. You are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You are a social brute.

And then when I’m in charge of something, which I will be, I will choose honest, fair, and reasonable people – not you – for future projects.

If I deserve $100,000, and we’re ultimately going to end on something in the $95,000 to $105,000 range, and you start by offering me $65,000, I will be insulted forever. Literally forever. You might as well have told me my ass looks fat in these pants, except we’re talking about my work, which I expect to be high-quality for several decades after my ass stops looking great in pants.

If you lowball me, I won’t think that’s a clever opening move. I will think you are an asshole. Possibly a sexist asshole.

Okay, I think I’ve been clear. So, if you are a dude, what should you actually do about this? After all, if I come into a negotiation expecting that you’re going to be a stereotypical dude and lowball me, but then you try to be a reasonable and fair person but I still think you’re lowballing me, that could be a problem. I suggest something like:

“I know when you start talking about money, you’re supposed to start with some outrageous number so you can bargain from there, but I don’t want to insult you. I looked at salary.com, as I’m sure you have, and I think we’re looking at some numbers bordering on six figures. So, I love your work, but we’ve got a budget crunch right now, and I can’t squeeze more than $90,000 out of the budget.”

I would not be insulted by that. I would, ideally, say something like, “I know I can make well over six figures in the private market, so I really can’t do this for under $105,000.” And then we could have a reasonable discussion.

Can we all just develop some gender-neutral rules of not being an asshole?

I’m all about re-examining our social and ethical rules and practices and seeing if they hold up under gender-neutral scrutiny. For instance, opening doors? That’s nice. Especially if people are holding packages or babies or anvils or they’re on crutches or something. Boxing? I’m glad women can do anything men can do, but a sport based on hitting people in the head until they fall down isn’t a great idea considering what we now know about what happens to a human brain that hits the inside of your skull too many times.

(See also Bullish: Let’s Just All Agree on Some Basic Principles of Sexual Ethics.)

So, we should all be aware that old-school negotiating involves what I (and many women) view as trying to trick and cheat people you usually act pretty friendly with. This form of negotiating is still extremely common in some arenas, and is as outmoded as the three-martini lunch in others.

Whether you’re operating in this paradigm or in a newer one can be puzzling. People are still genuinely confused about who should pay on a date. If you want to run a meeting according to parliamentary procedure, you have to inform everyone whether you’ll be using Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, Kerr & King’s Procedures for Meeting and Organizations, or perhaps, if you’re feeling frisky, Arthur Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms of the House of Commons of Canada. It’s nice to know what set of rules is in play.

How do you sniff that out? Probably by talking to people who’ve negotiated with the person you’re about to negotiate with, and by observing that person’s reaction to other moves that could alternately be considered horrifically arrogant and antisocial, or, in some circles, “showing initiative.”

But I don’t think there’s just one set of rules any longer, nor do we all have to study up on books that prepare us to negotiate with a dying class of old men who never learned to type. (I refuse to be cowed by someone who cannot send an email without assistance.)

Finally, if you develop highly desirable skills, you don’t really have to put up with old-school dicking-each-other-over-for-sport. Oh, you should understand it and be ready for it. But you don’t have to play by those rules if your skills are in demand. If everybody wants what you have, you could – as just one example – set your rates sky-high, and say, “I don’t negotiate. Unless you’re telling me I charge too little!” Then laugh at your clever joke, stare, and wait for a response. If you don’t like the response, walk away.

(For advice on this matter, please see Bullish: Tech Skills Are Not Optional for Your Career, Bullish: How to Sell Yourself as an Expert, and Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College.)

If you control the skills that others need in order to compete – preferably rare, difficult, and quantifiable skills – you can dictate the business environment, or at least some now-more-reasonable-and-transparent corner of it.

If we all do this at once over the next twenty years, eventually those “Negotiating for Women” books will seem hilariously anachronistic (like all those old Crisco ads about baking cakes so that a man will love you), and overly-strategized, asshole “negotiating” can easily be called out for what it really is.

First published on The Grindstone.