An employer with two job openings offers one to a male candidate and the other to a female. The man says, "Thank you. Let's talk terms." The woman says, "Thank you. I will start on Monday."
This happens all the time, said Alison Fragale '93, an organizational psychologist and expert in human behavior. Women's reluctance to negotiate for themselves – and the resentment they face if they do – is one of the topics she studies as a professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan- Flagler Business School.
"For most people, negotiating conjures up a set of characteristics that we associate much more with men than with women – dominance, confidence, assertiveness, etc.," said Fragale. "Women are supposed to be warm and nurturing. The idea of negotiating for yourself creates this conflict between how they think they need to be and what feels comfortable. So, what ends up happening is that women think, 'I can't do that. If I do, people won't like me.' So, they often don't negotiate for themselves – leaving things on the table, rather than risk disapproval from the person across the table."
Research shows that one of the biggest differences between men and women is the willingness to negotiate in the first place. If they do ask for more money, a better job title, more vacation, they often are judged as too aggressive, she said.
As a consultant for corporations and the military, Fragale advises women to figure out a way to ask for what they want without eliciting resentment. The key is to do it in a way that also conveys concern for the relationship.
For example, when Sheryl Sandberg joined the executive team of Facebook, she negotiated her salary with Mark Zuckerberg.
In asking for more money, she explained how the skills she was demonstrating during the salary negotiation would help him down the road because she would be using it for the company. Fragale said Sandberg conveyed the message that it would be the only time she would be on the opposite side of the table as Zuckerberg.
"That kind of messaging is really effective for women. It's good for men too, but for women, it's a game-changer."
Margaret Ann Neale, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, Emerita at Stanford University, said Fragale is one of a handful of female scholars in the country doing important research on gender differences in organizational behavior, among other topics. "Most of the research on negotiation is written by men. There are some clear exceptions, including Alison."
As the mother of two boys and a girl, Fragale teaches her children how to negotiate for privileges from an early age. For example, her kids wanted to finish watching the last five minutes of a television show instead of getting ready for school. She didn't want them to be late for school.
So she came up with a compromise – she would bring down their clothes and they could finish watching the program while getting ready. Both parties got what they wanted.
But another time, when the kids asked to win back weekday screen privileges, she asked them to come up with something that would make her budge. But they couldn't come up with a good incentive, so they lost that negotiation.
"I truly believe everything is negotiable, except for a few things that are health or safety related," she said.
Fragale lives in Chicago and teaches in North Carolina, an unconventional work arrangement. But when her husband wanted to move back to Chicago, she did exactly what she teaches other women to do – she negotiated a deal that worked for both parties. The plan was for her to fly south a few times a month and teach intensive seminars to graduate students.
Pre-COVID-19, she logged about 100,000 air miles a year, not only as a professor but as a keynote speaker and consultant to corporations around the world. She would also use the time in the air to write up the schedules of her three children, who are all named after Chicago and Pittsburgh sports figures. (For example, her oldest son's first name is Jordan, after Michael Jordan, and his middle name is Bradshaw).
It was exhausting, but she and her husband coordinated their schedules to balance two high-powered careers with being involved parents. Sometimes it meant having "airport dates" at the Admiral's Club before takeoff or after landing.
She also serves on the board of Great Lakes Academy (GLA), a charter school in southeast Chicago that serves Black and Latinx students. "It is one of the most underserved and underfunded public districts in Chicago, and GLA is a charter school created to provide a Shady Side Academy experience for children in that community."
Neale, her former advisor at Stanford, is amazed at her many accomplishments. "Here is a woman who has three kids, and she volunteers not only for the kids but also in the community. She teaches an enormous amount, both in an academic environment and also with companies and corporations to try to help people become more effective in their negotiations and their leadership. It's just stunning all the things she is able to accomplish."
She also returned to her alma mater in January 2020 and led a leadership development retreat for the SSA leadership team at the request of her former SSA classmate, President Bart Griffith '93.
Even as a teenager, Fragale had a knack for juggling responsibilities without getting flustered.
Fragale transferred to Shady Side Academy as a high school freshman and threw herself into all of the advanced math courses the school offered. In her senior year, she planned to take two advanced math classes – BC calculus and another with linear algebra and differential equations – but there was a problem in that they sometimes met on the same day and time. She approached Joe Felder, who taught one of the classes, and proposed a solution herself – she would make up the work from the classes she missed. "I basically went to him and negotiated," she said.
He told her to go for it, and she excelled in both classes. "Mr. Felder was an amazing teacher. The fact that Shady Side was offering those classes in 1993 still amazes me."
She also took a macroeconomics class, the kind of college- level class not found in many high schools at the time. "Shady Side was transformational for me in so many ways," she said.
Fragale made lifelong friendships there, and stays in regular contact with Erin Mancuso Smith '93, her field hockey teammate.
"Alison is incredibly bright, and she tackles everything effortlessly," said Smith, an emergency room physician in Charlotte, N.C. "She took the highest level of calculus and never broke a sweat. She was very athletic and she's also hysterically funny."
After Shady Side, Fragale earned a Bachelor of Arts in math and economics at Dartmouth College, and she figured she would go into business. After all, her father ran an engineering firm, and it seemed like a good path. Thinking she would eventually get an MBA, she moved to Chicago to become a management consultant with McKinsey and Company. "I absolutely hated it," she said.
She realized that the business career she had originally envisioned wasn't for her. So, she cast around for a new path. She had always been interested in psychology and wanted to use the field to help others improve the work environment and create better leadership. She decided to pursue a Ph.D. in organizational psychology at Stanford University under the mentorship of Neale.
She also found creative ways to test theories, the hallmark of a good scholar, Neale said. "Alison was a delight to have as a student."
In her dissertation, Fragale conducted research on status and speech, and found that when people use qualifiers in their speech – words like really, kind of, or maybe – it is usually associated with low status, and that women tend to use those qualifiers more.
But those speech patterns can be status-enhancing in groups that work interdependently. "Powerless speech signals warmth," she said.
Now, as a consultant, she uses that kind of research to advise corporations on issues such as the different ways men and women respond to job ads. Women are reluctant to answer a job ad unless they have 100 percent of the qualifications listed, she said, while men only check off about 60 percent before deciding to apply.
That presents a problem when employers write what Fragale calls "unicorn" job ads, a long list of all the qualities they are seeking in the ideal candidate. But that isn't meant to be realistic – it's more an opening offer meant to kick off a negotiation process. The trouble is that many women feel intimidated and do not bother to apply.
Fragale advises corporations hoping to attract more women and minorities to rewrite their ads with this research in mind, so they don't lose out on female prospects. For example, an ad may provide a list of ideal characteristics but indicate that they don't expect candidates to have all of them.
Fragale also studies aspects of negotiation and power unrelated to gender. For example, with two people going back and forth, is it better to make an offer first or hold back and respond to the person?
Many people say it's a good time to hang back and see what the other person offers. "But science says to go first," she said. "When you go first, you start to constrain the other person's thoughts around what's possible. They get anchored to it, and you end up with a better outcome."
By nature, humans are egocentric, she said, but good negotiators ask a lot of questions to find out what is important to the other person and what doesn't matter. "Negotiation is a basic toolkit to achieve two things – How do I get what I want? How do I leave the relationships with the people involved as good as or better than I found them?"
Neale said Fragale is a natural negotiator. "She is an incredibly thoughtful person. She can help herself, but she also can take the perspective of other people and help them. She walks that tension very nicely."
For Fragale, negotiating isn't something that people should learn about only to get a better salary or a better price on a house or other formal contracts. She believes it is a useful skill that can help with almost every interpersonal experience in life.
It's like math, a favorite subject of hers. Just as the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can be applied to a myriad of situations, so can the basics of negotiation. "It's a skill set that you can apply to any kind of problem."