‘Shark Tank’ is helping bust the shame women feel about negotiation. The unabashed back-and-forth between the entrepreneurs and sharks is an unravelling of what could happen if you ask: you might just get it.

After two successful stints, Shark Tank India is back with a third season. It features a fresh batch of diverse entrepreneurs pitching their ideas for potential funding to a panel of 12 rotating sharks — three females and nine males — who assess, evaluate and offer their investments.

The show has been groundbreaking in many ways. It has made entrepreneurship aspirational and accessible. One of the fun aspects of the show is when a shark unexpectedly breaks the fourth wall in the middle of the pitch to simplify complex business jargon, such as EBITA, Valuation, Equity, Patent for the audience. Additionally, and more importantly, the show has played an integral role in demystifying the art of negotiation, especially for women in the workplace who often struggle to negotiate for themselves.

The rapid-fire deal-making process provides a glimpse into real-life negotiations, and the added intrigue comes from witnessing the internal struggles among the sharks as they compete to secure the entrepreneurs they desire.

Women less likely to negotiate

In a recent episode of Shark Tank Season 3, Kanika Dewani, the owner of Mintree Skincare, impressed the sharks with her business acumen and negotiation skills. She received two offers from four sharks, who were forced to waive off their initial royalty charge of 2 percent in order to secure the deal. Kanika left with an impeccable deal from Peyush Bansal and Azhar Iqubal, with Rs 90 lakh for 1.5 percent equity, from an initial ask of Rs 90 lakh for 1 percent equity.

It is powerful to witness an unabashed negotiation unfold between a woman entrepreneur and the sharks on national television. It serves as a critical example to many women who are discouraged to assert themselves, ask for what they deserve, or advocate for their interests, when in fact that is the basic foundation of a negotiation.

Negotiation as per Roger Fisher and William Ury’s 1981 classic, Getting To Yes, is aback-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.” It is a method of resolution, which requires inputs from both parties. This back-and-forth is seen clearly on Shark Tank, where sharks make an offer, and then entrepreneurs counter the offer, till a resolution is met.

However, not all women are taught to perceive negotiations as this. In an Harvard Business Review article, titled Nice Girls Don’t Ask , authors Linda Babcock, Sara Laschever, Michele J. Gelfand and Deborah Small concluded from the three separate studies that women were less likely to negotiate for what they want as opposed to men. This happens because of several reasons.

“They often are socialized from an early age not to promote their own interests and to focus instead on the needs of others…Women tend to assume that they will be recognized and rewarded for working hard and doing a good job. Unlike men, they haven’t been taught that they can ask for more.” And that is where the problem lies, unique interests are fundamental to any negotiation. So a woman who isn’t ever encouraged to express her individual interest, is a woman who will not negotiate well for herself.

The bias against assertive women negotiators

In an interview to The New York Times, Indra Nooyi, the former C.E.O of Pepsico, had famously said that she “never ever asked for a raise…Whatever they give me is much more than I would have ever had.” The interviewer asked her whether her decision was gendered, and she replied, “I don’t know. I find it cringeworthy. I cannot imagine working for somebody and saying my pay is not enough.” What is interesting is that her decision to not ask for more money was unpopular with her underlings who, in fact, encouraged Nooyi to ask for a raise because their compensation was tied to hers.

As impressive and inspirational Nooyi is and has been for all women, there is a fundamental bias in her thought process. Her point of view is only symptomatic of most women in any organisational position. Their inability to view themselves as people with self-interests is what causes the hesitancy to ask for what they deserve. And while Nooyi might think that there are no negative consequences for simply being grateful and humble, the cultural bias actually does cause more harm than it’s visible.

Firstly, as pointed out by her junior colleagues, her refusal to ask for more money had a direct financial consequence on her subordinates. Secondly, Nooyi was not only encouraged to ask for a raise, she was also in the unique position where the board one year decided to give her a raise, and she turned it down: “It was right after a financial crisis, and I said, I don’t want the raise.” Whether Nooyi knew this or not, this was a position of great privilege. Refusing a raise in her position, perpetuates the notion that as a woman, it is wrong to want more or, in her case, simply keep more.

A study led by Julian J. Zlatev of Harvard University and Jennifer Dannals of Dartmouth College, found that men outperform women when negotiating from a position of greater power. The reason for this is because women who negotiated with strong alternatives were penalized for being too assertive, a quality that did not affect the male negotiators. This is the other consequence of turning down a raise. Had Nooyi accepted the raise, she would have become an even bigger inspiration for women. Asking for more money by Nooyi would have helped break the bias that male employers have against assertive female negotiators.

Overall, one of the most challenging aspects for many women appears to be the misconception that expressing gratitude and seeking a pay raise are mutually exclusive, which is a fallacy. To state that expressing gratitude is incompatible with seeking more is akin to suggesting that a child who earns an A on a subject is ungrateful for aiming to achieve an A+ in the next exam, say for a potential scholarship.

Gratitude is a practice that can be performed across different levels of professional success, and the positive effects of gratitude can be experienced as long as you practise it. Conversely and more shrewdly, the lack of gratitude is clearly not a direct impediment to negotiating harder for your interests.

Busting women’s shame about negotiation

Liz Hamburger, a senior product designer based in Essex, shared, “I’m a freelance product designer working in tech and never negotiated my salary until I was 27. I always just took what was on offer salary-wise, feeling grateful to even have a job. But after my motorbike got stolen and I needed more money to pay for train fare, I asked for more money out of a need rather than a want, as I was given it instantly, with no hesitation, I couldn’t believe it was so easy. From then on, I’ve always negotiated my salary as a perm person. Now, I’m a freelancer; I’ve learnt that negotiation is part of the job and it’s all about explaining your value, doing your market rate research and being confident.”

The negative connotation that exists against earning which, in its rawest form, can only be called as shame is a perception that needs to be challenged; it needs to be emphasized that women, like anyone else, have the right to seek fair compensation and pursue financial goals without compromising their value.

In a Shark Tank Season 2 episode; the dynamic sister duo of Rhea and Yeshoda Karuturi, founders of Hoovu, presented their fresh flower business to the sharks. Apart from being women founders, they prided themselves on female employment and handled the questions from the sharks adeptly. They secured two offers: one from Vineeta Singh and Namita Thapar and a slightly better one from Anupam Mittal and Peyush Bansal.

Despite being women entrepreneurs, the founders carefully assessed their options and ultimately chose a deal with Peyush and Aman Gupta. What makes this instance noteworthy is that, despite potential stereotypes or biases, the founders demonstrated agency in first putting forward their offer, and then selecting the offer that best aligned with their vision. It serves as an interesting example of women entrepreneurs confidently expressing their preferences and securing a favourable deal from male investors.

This is where Shark Tank is helping bust women’s shame associated with negotiation. The unabashed back-and-forth that happens between entrepreneurs and sharks is an unravelling of what could happen if you ask — you might just get it! So, nice girls, please ask!

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