When Deborah Kolb PhD ’81 applied to doctoral programs, she had a preschooler at home and a baby on the way. She chose MIT over Harvard, she says, because Sloan allowed her to enroll part time. The opportunity to make that choice influenced her subsequent career. Now a leading authority on gender and negotiation, she advises women—and men—on brokering the myriad small changes they need to succeed at work.
Kolb studied history and economics at Vassar and earned an MBA at the University of Colorado. While she was at Sloan, Lotte Bailyn, now a professor emerita, advised her to take her time on her ethnography of labor mediators—and she did. She won the first Zenon S. and Clotilde Zannetos Thesis Prize, and the MIT Press published her thesis under the title The Mediators.
Kolb taught leadership and negotiation for 29 years at Simmons College, where she heard about students’ experiences negotiating in the workplace. “Women face institutional challenges in the working world, and they need to constantly negotiate their way through policies and practices that appear neutral,” she says. For example, in academia it typically takes seven years to get tenure—and for many women, those years are the best time to start having children. When schools change their policies to give both women and men extra time off, however, men tend to use that time for more research, giving them an advantage. In 2000, she and a former student shed light on the phenomenon in The Shadow Negotiation, which was named one of that year’s 10 best books by Harvard Business Review.
Now retired from Simmons, Kolb is the co-director of the Negotiations in the Workplace Project at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. She leads seminars for corporations, like Google and Time Warner, that want to retain their best female leaders. She is also an in-demand workshop facilitator and speaker. A recent keynote was titled “Negotiating at Work: Small Wins to Big Gains.”
“We know that millennials are moving out of companies, often because they get asked to take on extra work,” she says. “We tell them, ‘Don’t opt out. Negotiate! Stay in situations that don’t look so promising.’ And when you negotiate for new opportunities and credit for extra work, you lay the path for people who come after.”
Kolb’s most recent book, Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains, was a Time.com best negotiation book of 2015. She and her husband, psychoanalyst Jonathan Kolb, live in Brookline and on Cape Cod, where they enjoy coaxing their hydrangeas to bloom.
This article appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.