Structural Inequities

Deborah Kolb

Co-Director of the Program on Negotiations in the Workplace, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

A: I was asked about seven or eight years ago to speak by the World Population Council. They were running a conference in Amsterdam for women from the south, people who are gender trainers. to do a negotiation workshop How much this was relevant to them I wasn't sure. It was also clear that this sort of technocratic US way of looking at negotiation might not fit with them very well, but they really challenged me in a lot of scores around the presumption of agency, about women in these cultures, and it sort of really made me think about this notion that it was a very powerful thing I was positioning.

These gender trainers have a lot of technology that they use in training, and they were sharing that technology. One of the things that they had was this game, which was called Mona Mayo ???, and it was a little board game with two cultures. I don't know I forget what they're called, Alphas and Betas, maybe. You picked up cards and you moved around this board and the cards say, for instance you may have just gotten a grant from the AID to grow more rice, you know there's a big rain storm and your product is wiped out, or you know you need to come up with the money to send the kids to school and school uniforms. There's that kind of thing you sort of move around, and you have money. What happens over time is that the Alphas start to do incredibly well and they've got a lot of grants from the AID. just doing ??? they Betas have just got to give up their community farms because they've got to go work for the Alphas and they're wiped out, and there's money for the community and when you get to this point you run out of money. I was on the group that ran out of money and I said, "Listen we need to revolt. We've just got to revolt, this is crazy. They are exploiting us, they're not doing anything. They are sitting around watching televisions, drinking beer." At the end you find out that the Alphas were the men and the Betas were the women and you had no idea that that was the case. 

Q: What specifically did you learn from the Alpha-Beta game?

A: I learned from the Alpha-Beta game about how you don't recognize the ways in which gender shapes culture and society. I was playing this game as if I was an equal. There were these two groups in this community, and I was an equal who was just getting a run of bad luck. The game was actually trying to show you how sort of international players exacerbate gender roles; there is no money for the gardens that the women would grow to feed the family. You begin to understand how gender structures things; it's so invisible to you. You don't pay enough attention to it. You know the work we do here at our center for gender and organizations is really about all the subtle ways that gender is embedded in organizations that creates these playing fields. If you really want to make some changes around organizations or around practices you really have to begin to understand, to unpack some of those gendered assumptions.


Most people think about gender as looking at men and women; how men and women are different. I think that's not very interesting way to look at gender. I think that people are positioned in negotiation differently and the way they are positioned makes a huge difference in terms of how they can enact their roles. Sometimes men and women are positioned differently.

Q: By position you mean ?

A: The social structure in which they're involved. My interests since I teach in the Business School, is very much interested in business. Generally men hold higher positions than women. When you come into negotiation you are not just talking about men and women, you are talking about men leaders and women managers, or men managers. The position that you occupy in a negotiation makes a huge difference in terms of what you're able to do, and how you see the possibilities.


I think that a way to think about gender is not to just look at the way men and women would negotiate. The fact is that the women aren't at the table, and so how can they be participants? The issues that one would want to work on from a gender perspective, as far as I am concerned, is how women mobilize to get to the table so that they can be participants. 

Q: So before you analyze women's style of negotiation, you have to have them negotiate?

A: You have to have them negotiate.


I learned about it from studying women but I think the implications are more generic. Talk to Larry and he's, you know, advocate of mister mutual gains negotiation, but my view is the ability to do that is very much determined by the position that you're in.

 People would talk to me about how they got in their own way. They didn't experience themselves as having a sense of agency. If they didn't have a sense of agency how can you claim, how can you do value creating, value claiming, it's very hard to do. People talked about the difficulty of getting people to the table, and if you're not at the table how can you enact these kinds of processes or get into situations where they're challenged and they have to push back.