How to Use Bias to Your Advantage

A client recently sent me the article How Poker Player Annie Duke Used Gender Stereotypes to Win Matches. It reminded her of what we’d discussed in a negotiations workshop, about how awareness of biases against women can help you get what you want.

In the article, Annie evaluates her opponents’ impressions of her and uses those expectations to her advantage. For example, if she identified a player as a “disrespecting chauvinist” she figured he didn’t think women could be creative, and she would bluff successfully.
 
While most of us don't play poker for a living, this article demonstrates several ways women can transform gender biases into advantages. Below are three effective strategies to do just that in your world by using traditionally feminine qualities to your advantage in negotiations.

Listen

Being a strong listener is a huge asset in negotiations, but it takes particular attention to tune into other people’s words when we’re nervous. When we focus too much on what we plan to say next, we can miss cues about the other person’s perspective.  By paying attention, you may get important insight or be able to pick up on what’s not being said.  

Frame your request in terms of the other party's interests

This strategy is doubly effective because women are expected to be concerned about what benefits the group, and people are more likely to say yes to things that benefit them.  Let’s say you want to work from home occasionally. You also have a monthly report that requires detail-oriented writing.  One way to frame this request is to say something like, 

“I want to improve the monthly reports, and I have an idea of how to do that. Part of the reason they sometimes run behind is that it breaks my concentration when colleagues drop into my office. I’d like to spend two Fridays a month working outside the office writing them. What do you think?” 

By offering your supervisor a solution that benefits the organization, she’s more likely to grant your request.   

Ask Questions

Restating your counterpart's perspective using questions like “Did I understand you correctly that ____?” can help avoid misunderstanding, and again, demonstrate that you’re invested in their interests. 

Understanding your counterpart’s goals is a key strategy for successful negotiations, but people usually only share their conclusion or position, not their motivations.  Asking “What’s your theory?” kinds of questions like “How did you arrive at that price?” to tease out your counterpart’s thought process can be a useful approach. 

Let’s pretend your supervisor initially says no to your request to work from home on Fridays.  This might be because she needs you in the office on Fridays, but Tuesdays would be fine.  Perhaps it’s a “no for now” but in 6 months, she would say yes. Asking follow up questions like, “Would you be willing to share your thought process?” is the best way to learn more in order to reach arrangements that are good for everyone. 

In some ways the above approaches reinforce traditional gender roles.  In her well-researched book “What Works for Women at Work”, Joan C. Williams referenced an alternative title, “Dealing with the Crap While Waiting for Change”, that feels pretty relatable.   

Even if it’s not as conscious as it was for Annie, it can be exhausting and maddening to adjust our behavior to fit a system that is unfair.  I like to think of this how-to guide as less “negotiating like a lady” and more “getting what you want and maintaining relationships.” 

The issues of bias and gender inequality that face many of my clients aren’t just theirs to “fix.” We need systemic change so a woman can ask for what she needs or deserves without fear of repercussions. Nonetheless, women have to operate within the system as it exists today while—for those who feel compelled—trying to change it.  

So however you choose to proceed, know that gender bias is out there; it isn’t your fault; and there’s no “right way” to advocate for yourself.  My goal is simply to provide you information and tools that can be effective for women, so you understand the landscape and can get what you want in a way that feels authentic to you.