Negotiating for a Better Life
Professor Kathleen McGinn's research shows that teaching young Zambian women negotiation skills can greatly improve their health and educational outcomes.
14 Dec 2015   Christian Camerota

Many young Zambian women face an uncommon number of challenges early in life. They drop out of eighth and ninth grade at three times the rate of their male counterparts and contract HIV twice as often. One in 27 will die due to complications associated with childbirth.

From her work with women in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2009, Professor Kathleen McGinn has developed keen insight into the exigent nature of such challenges. Her experiences there prompted her to study how teaching communication and negotiation skills at critical developmental junctures might improve young women’s poor health and educational outcomes. With Harvard Business School Associate Professor Nava Ashraf and Wharton School Assistant Professor Corinne Low, and Remmy Mukonka of the Ministry of Education of Zambia, McGinn founded Girls Arise, an innovative negotiation skills training program designed specifically to help Sub-Saharan African women communicate effectively in high-pressure situations with complex power dynamics.

“It is, in many ways, a typical negotiation curriculum,” McGinn said. “But everything is rewritten to work in a Zambian context. The data to date shows that the training’s effects are very positive.”


Drawing from her own experience teaching negotiation at Harvard Business School, as well as other curricula (including a program for young negotiators based at MIT and a conflict resolution program at Mercy Corps), McGinn and her colleagues laid the foundation for Girls Arise, expanding and strengthening it through rigorous field testing. Once refined, project managers Annika Rigole and Clément Bisserbe of Innovations for Poverty Actions, a research and policy nonprofit that focuses on solving global poverty problems, worked with 3,146 Zambian girls in the eighth grade across 41 schools in Lusaka to implement it.

These students were separated into three groups: a “negotiation group” in which female Zambian coaches used the customized curriculum to teach negotiation skills during after-school sessions, a “safe space group” that attended group game and study sessions (without negotiation training), and a “control group” that did not participate in any kind of after-school program. While still processing a huge amount of data collected during and after the study, ranging from school progress to health and pregnancy outcomes, McGinn confirmed that their initial findings showed improved negotiation skills were a boon to the young women’s lives, helping them overcome gender disparities and providing useful life skills.

Zambian girls participating in the Girls Arise program

“The reality is that these are teenagers who operate just the way you and I would within the constraints of their lives and culture,” McGinn said. “One of those constraints is that they’re not expected to present their own priorities. But having reliable information about what they can do to keep themselves safe and healthy is extremely important. What surprised me is how much even a small amount of information on thinking about their own and others’ interests could effect such positive change.”

Specifically, McGinn said that after the training, the women in the negotiation group were better able to advocate for themselves and to arrange for more resources from their guardians. That did not come, she said, out of some inherent difference between the young women’s upbringings. Rather, it came through a learned ability to capitalize when opportunities to communicate arose, as well as to discern when situations offered a chance for discussion.

“Even though negotiation is taught around the world, there is limited research showing its efficacy in these kinds of personal situations,” McGinn said. “We assume it’s effective in other scenarios, when people pay a lot for it and believe it will help them succeed at doing deals. But our research shows that negotiation isn’t just for making better deals, it’s vital for creating better lives.”


These findings have huge positive implications for young women throughout Africa and, indeed, around the world, given the low-cost nature of the model and its potential for scaling up in the future. That is a primary reason McGinn and her colleagues have already made their curriculum available to the public, although the formal studies and results have not yet been published.

“We hope this is just the beginning,” McGinn said. “NGOs are already using the curriculum to train their teachers, the government of Zambia is looking at adopting it, and it’s available through Harvard Business Publishing. The fact that the program is effective and being picked up and implemented on a large scale, means that this study has already been incredibly successful. It’s the best outcome we could have hoped for.”

To read more about Professor McGinn’s research, visit NPR’s #15Girls series, which profiled McGinn and her colleagues’ efforts in Zambia.


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