How To Use Sexism To Your Advantage At Work

A version of this article was originally published by Forbes.

The only woman at the table, professional poker player Annie Duke won $2 million at the first ever World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions.

In an interview with NPR, Duke shares how she evaluates her opponents’ impressions of her and uses those expectations to her advantage. If someone was “emotionally invested in the fact that I was a woman,” says Duke, “Probably, that person wasn't going to make good decisions at the table against me.” She treated sexism as part of the game, an effective means of predicting her opponents’ behavior.

While this was emotionally taxing, she compartmentalized and asked herself, “How can I come up with the best strategy to take their money? ...In the end, isn't that the best revenge?” For example, if she identified a player as a “disrespecting chauvinist”, she figured he didn’t think women could be creative, which allowed her to bluff successfully.

Duke demonstrates several ways women can use gender stereotypes to their advantage. Outside of the realm of poker, women often see negative consequences when they negotiate for themselves. However, research demonstrates that when women use qualities that are considered stereotypically feminine like listening, collaboration, and empathy, they can avoid the negative effects of gender bias.

In addition to being stellar negotiation strategies for anyone, these qualities aren’t in conflict with how people think women are “supposed” to behave. Wielded effectively, you can use these stereotypically feminine qualities strategically, much like Duke.

Below are three effective tools to do just that in your work life:

1. Listen carefully.

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 or making a good impression, we forget to listen.

Psychologists call this the “next-in-line effect”. We know that after the other person stops talking, we’ll be expected to say something. We can be so focused on what we’re going to say next that we don’t consider what the other person is saying.  This can cause us to miss cues about the other person’s perspective.

This happens all the time in negotiation. By paying close attention, you may get important insight or be able to pick up on what’s not being said.  

2. 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 themselves.

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. There’s such attention detail required, it would be invaluable to have dedicated time away from the office to focus on them uninterrupted. I’d like to dedicate two Fridays a month to writing them from home. How does that sound to you?”

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

3. Ask questions.

When you restate your counterpart's perspective using questions like, “Did I understand you correctly that ____?” you can help avoid misunderstanding, and again demonstrate that you’re both listening and 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. When you ask, “What’s your theory?” kinds of questions (such as, “How did you arrive at that price?”) you can tease out your counterpart’s thought process.

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 (“Would you be willing to share your thought process?” for example) 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 suggested that an alternative book title could have been Dealing with the Crap While Waiting for Change. It feels pretty relatable.

Even if it’s not as conscious as it was for Duke, adjusting our behavior to fit an unfair system can be exhausting and maddening. I like to think of these strategies 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, we have to operate within the system as it exists today while—for those who feel compelled—trying to change it.

In the interim, awareness of the biases against women can help make it easier to get what we want.