BATNA, Power and Patriarchy
One of the things that gives you power in a negotiation is your BATNA, or your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”. In simple terms, it’s your walk-away position.
A beloved therapist of mine told me log ago “Susan, you can’t really negotiate unless you are willing to walk away.” She was right.
The party who has the most power in a negotiation is the party who is least dependent on the outcome of the negotiation to meet their objectives. In other words, they can walk away.
I have thought about this a lot and repeated it many times in the negotiation programs I have delivered around the world. When you are preparing for an upcoming negotiation (or difficult conversation), you need to think about what happens if it doesn’t work out. It’s key to assessing your power to influence the situation.
But here’s the thing. No human interaction ever happens in isolation.
5000 years of patriarchy influences the walk-away positions of women around the world.
Let me tell you a story, versions of which we have all heard many times.
I run an AirBnB out of my home from which I get a welcome 2nd source of income and a lot of interesting guests. One of them was an adorable, 24 yr old guy, self-described “feminist” from India who was a graduate student in New York City. I love the conversations I have with my guests, especially younger ones from far-off lands. He shared with me openly about his parents’ divorce. In the “negotiation” of his parents’ marriage (and yes, marriage is a negotiation – all the principles apply), it was OK for his Dad to be abusive to his Mom and to have affairs with other women. His Mom in contrast was the dutiful mother and wife and, while a professional herself, supported her husband as the main breadwinner. His Dad walked away from the marriage and was able, through his greater economic power and the Indian laws that privileged men, to have custody of the kids -- which was super painful to my guest.
I heard pretty much the same story from a male guide in Benin, West Africa. (I was recently working with a trade negotiation team in Ghana and came over to neighboring Benin to visit friends and learn more about the slave trade.) The guide was separated from his wife and had sole custody of their children because in his culture kids literally belong to the father. He told me, without a drop of contrition, how the Mom pleaded with him regularly to see her children and every now and then he threw her a crumb and let her catch a glimpse. In terms of patriarchal privilege, it seemed resonant with the Abomey kings he was telling me about who, 400 years earlier, had their dozens of wives buried alive with them when they died (in addition to selling fellow Africans to European slave traders).
Patriarchy is a system, it is global and, while it’s not so great for men either, it generally strengthens men’s options, or BATNA’s in the negotiations or conflicts they have with women.
Of course, this plays out in the professional world as well. A recent Harvard report in the United States on women and negotiation says that the reason women sometimes ask for less when negotiating our salaries is because we are afraid that we will be perceived as too pushy and demanding and it will backfire. And these fears are shown by the research to be warranted. Patriarchy has conditioned us to “know our place” or suffer the consequences.
Women are getting stronger throughout the world which is a welcome change for many women and men alike.
Not surprisingly, this is corresponding to a rise in authoritarian regimes around the planet. In the global gender “negotiation”, those who want to hold on to the patriarchal world order do not want to give up women’s second-class status as it’s a great source of cheaper “helpmates” in just about every nation on earth.
I say none of the to encourage you or me to feel like a victim. Being a victim takes our power away.
My message is just to be clear-eyed about our alternatives, our walk-away positions, our BATNA’s in any negotiation or conflict. We need to pop those bubbles of codependent fantasy that Prince Charming will save us, and build our capacity to walk-away from any intimate or business relationship if it isn’t working for us.
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