Women Negotiating: "I wish I could show up in drag"

During a recent conversation with my sister, an arborist and landscape designer, she landed a still-too-common refrain about getting a fair share of the horticultural pie:

"I wish I could show up in drag."

She, like her male counterparts, has a big truck with her company logo plastered on the doors, lots of specialized tools and ladders, a crew of talented helpers, 20 years in the business and several pairs of sturdy jeans and workboots. When she shows up to meet potential clients, she dresses like a woman and makes sure there's no dirt under her fingernails. It's a "presentation" thing she says. According to sis, it turns out looking like a woman is a disadvantage--as much of a disadvantage as being perceived as "gay" if she clomps into her clients gardens wearing mud boots.

The Double Bind is a Deep and Abiding Bias, But...

Earlier this year, James Chartrand of Men With Pens came clean about her identity. Yes, it turns out that the uber successful, sharp-witted wordsmith decided that making a living as a single mom required showing up in drag. When she first started out, potential clients balked at her fees and did everything they could to whittle down her bottom line. When she went into business as a man, nobody questioned her rate.

This is an old story. Jane Austen originally penned all of her works anonymously. Aurore Dudevant—aka George Sand—actually went out in public as her alter ego, dressing the part of a man and going to the opera. When J.K. Rowling first began publishing the Harry Potter series, her publishers advised her to use her initials or other pen name because they didn’t think little boys would read her series.

But today, we are beyond all that, right? We vote, we have equal rights for the most part, we run fortune 500 companies and we operate successful entrepreneurial adventures and online businesses. No, our political and cultural work is not over, not by far, but in my sister's case and I assert in James Chartrand's case, both could have made headway by honing in on a couple of sturdy negotiation strategies. In other words, we can all take personal responsibility for learning to operate beyond and above not only gender bias, but also our own perceived limitations. We have to begin transcending the road blocks, by choice. And that will take some new skills.

For example, my sister had a client who wanted to hire her for her expertise with Japanese maples. The client wanted her to make the 10 or 12 specimens into a hedge because, "They're just so darned expensive to maintain," and asked her to lower her rate by $40 per hour, since she was a woman and the job "would take her longer." My sister recoiled in horror. She felt that to abide by her client's request was an assault to her aesthetic sensibilities and her ethic as the go-to-goddess of tree pruning to say nothing of the gender bias. Requesting a lower rate was like pouring salt into a festering wound.

What's a Woman to Do? Ask Diagnostic Questions, that's what.

She refused to take on the job. What she could have done, however, is ask some simple DIAGNOSTIC QUESTIONS, the crown jewel of collaborative negotiation. If we see negotiation as a conversation leading to agreement, which it is, she could have employed diagnostic questions to reveal her client's intersts (wishes, concerns, challenges) and thereby gain a client, not lose one. She might have even altered the client's perception of female landscapers.

So what gets in the way? Our feelings. Our sensibilities. Our interpretations. Here's how we can mitigate our tendency to take things personally, using my poor sis as the poster child:

  • I understand your concern about maintenance. I'm wondering if you'd be willing to explore how we can keep the aesthetic of the maple in tact, and meet your budget at my current rate?
  • How does the hedge fit in with your overall goals for your landscape?
  • What garden projects do you feel you're setting aside by taking on the expense of the maples?
  • What has been your experience with other landscapers, and how can I help you do things differently?
  • What other plants, shrubs and trees do you love that might serve your budget and your landscape goals better? Would it be helpful if I gave you some alternative ideas?

So women, let your lips round into the shape that produces the letter "W" and ask questions like a journalist: who, what, when, where, how, and every so often, why. Perhaps a few well-placed questions will help keep you from the expense (emotional, cultural and financial) of dressing in drag.