Feminine features can hurt even men at the bargaining table, study finds


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One of the reasons often cited for why women make less than men is that they're not as willing to negotiate. Yet more and more research has shown that the stereotypes held by those on the other side of the table are just as much of the problem. In negotiations, people expect women to be more generous than men are, demand more of them, and are also more likely to lie to them.

Another recent study shows the bias runs even deeper. People — including men — with feminine facial features are offered less in negotiations than people with more masculine ones.

The study, published online in July by the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that research participants were more likely to want to negotiate against people with feminine facial features. The implication, of course, is that women (or people who look a bit more like them) are poor negotiators and thus more appealing foes.

In a second experiment that simulated an actual negotiation, the researchers found that bargainers demanded more when they thought their opponent was someone with, say, a less prominent eyebrow ridge, a smaller nose or even fuller lips. They also expected the more feminine-faced opponents to better cooperate.

"We found people were systematically more aggressive to feminine-featured faces," says Eric Gladstone, a PhD candidate at Cornell University who conducted the study with Kathleen O'Conner, a professor of management at the school. "They were more aggressive in their negotiations, they were more demanding, and they would send offers that demanded more." 

The researchers conducted the experiments by using four photos: an unaltered photo of a man, a photo of the same man altered to look slightly more feminine, an unaltered photo of a woman, and a photo of the same woman altered to appear slightly more masculine. In the study's first experiment, participants were shown a pair of same-sex "twins" (as they referred to the unaltered and altered photos) and asked whom they would prefer to negotiate against, and whom they would prefer to negotiate on their behalf.

Sixty-two percent of the respondents preferred the more feminine face — whether the "twins" were male or female — when choosing their opponent. Meanwhile, nearly 65 percent selected the more masculine face when asked which photo they'd like as their "agent."

In the other experiment, respondents were told they were testing an experimental software program designed for online negotiations, and thought they were negotiating against someone in another room who looked like one of the four photos. In these simulated negotiations, participants actually demanded more and offered less when shown one of the more feminine-faced opponents. "They discriminate based on the desired behavior associated with a particular role," wrote Gladstone and O'Conner in the paper.

So what should women — or men with a feminine slope to their foreheads or length to their jaws — do in order to better their bargaining chances? In the paper, Gladstone and O'Conner suggest using the phone in negotiations as one option. Yet they also look at the potential upside to the bias. "People have a preference to negotiate with them," Gladstone says, adding that these negotiations had more back-and-forth between the two parties. "When there are more opportunities to exchange, that in and of itself can garner a benefit."

They could also hope to startle their opponent, Gladstone says. "If it's expected that people think you're going to be a weak negotiator, you could always capitalize on that."

Read also:

An index fund that bets on women

"Better negotiators" are not the answer to resolving equal pay

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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