01 Dec 2018
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Research Brief: Bargaining for Better

by Jennifer Myers

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Kathleen McGinn (photo by Tracy Powell)

By the time they reach eighth grade, about 61 percent of girls in Zambia have dropped out of school—a rate three times higher than their male counterparts. Interventions have shown little return on investment, but a new study takes a different tack: Something as simple and nonmaterial as negotiation skills can have a life-changing impact on a girl’s future.

The study is detailed in “Negotiating a Better Future: How Interpersonal Skills Facilitate Inter-Generational Investment.” It tracks the progress of 801 eighth-grade girls in 41 schools throughout Lusaka, Zambia, who were trained in negotiation skills by local women.

“Before this, there was almost no research telling us that negotiation training is effective anywhere—not even for MBAs,” says Professor Kathleen McGinn, who cowrote the paper with colleagues Nava Ashraf, Natalie Bau, and Corinne Low.

“It is not really a big intervention, but what we saw were true life changes,” McGinn says. The study found that negotiation skills can reduce a teenage girl’s risk of dropping out of school by 10 percent.

The skills gave the adolescents the opportunity to see their interactions with others in ways they could not before, and provided them with a set of skills to change those interactions. The training mimicked real-life situations, such as negotiating with parents or siblings over household disagreements, declining unwanted sexual advances from older men, and asking parents to pay for school fees.

The training was tailored to be culturally appropriate for Zambia, using a “me, you, together, build” model. The girls are taught to step back and think about what they want in the big picture, consider the other person’s perspective, and then find a resolution that satisfies both parties.

The Zambian Ministry of Education has integrated aspects of the program into its life-skills curriculum, and McGinn says she sees even wider opportunities. “A lot of the attention in developing countries has been on girls and women, but boys have to make difficult life decisions too,” she says. “It makes sense to start stepping back from that, especially with this kind of training, and also open it up to boys.”

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