Negotiating: Why Women Don’t Ask and What to Do

We need women and girls to use their negotiating skills for themselves and for society to let them

Women graduate students trooped into economics professor Dr. Linda Babcock’s office at Carnegie Mellon University PA, where she directed the PhD program. They wanted to know why men students had been assigned to teach classes, while the women were merely teaching as-sistants.

“How dare they do that to women?” Babcock asked the associate dean, her husband. He replied that every man in the graduate program had come to him requesting a chance to teach.

Women students were shocked. They assumed an email would have been sent around if teaching opportunities were available. The men asked; the women waited to be asked.

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Princeton University Press, 2003, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever) explores why women avoid negotiation and how that hurts them. Babcock was keynote speaker at the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership conference in October in Fond du Lac, and led a follow-up workshop.

The price of not asking

If $568,000 were dumped out on the table, would you spend five minutes to get it? She offered a scenario in which two 22-year-olds are offered a job at $25,000.

One takes the offer; the other negotiates it up to $30,000 and banks the difference. With 3% annual raises and 3% interest on savings, by age 60 the negotiator has $568,000 more than the one who didn’t. That’s a good return on investment for a five-minute conversation at the start of a career.

Men are four times as likely as women to negotiate a starting salary. In one study, eight times as many men as women graduating from the same program negotiated their starting salary, raising it by an average of $4,000. Negotiation by more women might have closed the salary gap. Negotiation is also about staff, space, vacation, title, flex time, research funds, extra respon-sibilities and training. Reluctance to ask contributes to the glass ceiling.

It may also be one reason women do most of the housework. Laschever’s husband overheard a man in the next cubicle say he had to leave early to pick up the couple’s six kids. “Ever since my wife went to work fulltime, she’s been really stressed out,” the man said. He could easily leave early but this was the first time his wife had asked.

Elevated levels of stress contribute to cancer and heart disease. That’s a high price for women, their families and their employers.

Like a trip to the dentist

Good books and articles have been published about how to negotiate effectively. All of the advice is useless if you don’t ever get yourself to the bargaining table.

Asked to describe the experience of negotiating, women used words like “scary” and “like going to the dentist.” Men said “fun,” “exciting” and “like winning a ball game.”

Women go to great lengths and pay more to avoid negotiation. Women are nearly two-thirds of the buyers of Saturn vehicles, sold at a fixed price.

It’s not just baby boomers who show this gender divide. Undergraduates were told they’d be paid from $3 to $10 to play Boggle. Afterward the experimenter offered $3 and asked the player if it would be all right. Eight times more men than women wanted more money.

Nice girls, independent boys

“Girls hold back and wait. Boys demand what they want,” Babcock said. They’re socialized differently from birth. Girls are praised for looks, boys for strength and independence. Girls get doll houses; boys get trains.

By age six, children have fully developed gender schemas. Only 18% of characters on Saturday morning television are girls, who watch the boys have adventures. Girls wash the dishes and learn housework is free. Boys wash the car and get paid, associating work with earnings. Once in a store Babcock’s three-year-old daughter begged her to buy a toy bunny. “Do girls have money or do only boys have money?” the child innocently asked. Babcock realized she didn’t take her purse on family outings. “Kids are sponges and absorb information,” she said.

When sixth graders were asked to close their eyes and picture being the opposite sex, boys talked about constraints like having to help mom. Girls spoke wistfully of the freedom to play sports and stay out late.

Different socialization continues into adulthood. Men spend more time networking. Over golf or brandy, they develop close personal ties with those who can help them get ahead. They learn to hustle.

Women look up and don’t see anyone to help them. They don’t learn about initiating negotiation. “Women work hard and wait to get noticed,” she said.

Oysters and turnips

Some people see opportunities abound. The world is their oyster. For others, trying to get more than meets the eye is like squeezing blood from a turnip.

“Oyster” people believe they shape their lives; “turnip” people believe life happens to them. On a scale from oysters to turnips, those near the oyster end are mostly men. Most near the turnip end are women.

Of course, women have a long history of being controlled by others. They couldn’t vote or own property. They were taught that only men could ask for a date or propose marriage.

Feeling controlled by others is self-fulfilling, as with the students who assumed they couldn’t teach if the option hadn’t been announced. After an out-of-town meeting one self-described “oyster” woman said the hotel was adequate but she didn’t get one of those fluffy bathrobes. You have to ask for it at the front desk, someone explained.

Apart from the price of gas, Babcock has found almost everything is negotiable, but you won’t try unless you think you have some influence on your environment.

Women tend to underestimate what is available, leading them to settle for less. They also undervalue themselves and assume the first offer is all they are worth. Self-ratings of schoolgirls after performing a task were 30% to 78% below boys. Women report salary expectations up to 32% lower than men for the same job.

Bullying broads

Women are powerful negotiators—for a loved one or a cause. Once Babcock got sick on a book tour while staying with her mother in Los Angeles. Her mother called the doctor. When a nurse said they were fully booked, Babcock’s mother demanded to speak to the doctor, who agreed to see her.

In one experiment, women and men negotiated the price of an item they were selling. Women settled for $44.10 when they would reap the benefit but got the price up to $50.31 when it would go to somebody else. Men got $51.20 for themselves and $46.36 to benefit another.

“We need women and girls to use their negotiating skills for themselves and for society to let them,” she said. It’s considered appropriate for women to negotiate for family, friends and or-ganizations but not for self. “We need to change this or the playing field will never be level.” Women have reason to fear backlash when they act outside of social norms. They don’t want to harm their relationships. There’s a whole set of words to describe women who are too aggressive. Men and women alike expect women to be friendly and generous, putting others first in a way they don’t expect of a man.

Consequences of requesting something deemed inappropriate are worse for women than men, so women have to negotiate differently and be better prepared.

It matters how you ask

Men can go into negotiation as combat and come out unscathed, whether they win or lose. Women who come across as combative are almost certain to lose, in the long run if not imme-diately. Fortunately for women, there’s growing evidence that negotiation as collaborative problem-solving brings better results for everybody.

Smiles are effective for women. One university president calls herself “relentlessly pleasant.” She knows people expect her to be nice and she’ll get backlash if she isn’t. Viewing herself as a problem-solver, she smiles relentlessly until the problem is solved.

Planning is critical to winning with a smile.

1. Decide what you want. What do you care most about? Salary? Job title? Lab space? Work-life balance? Asking for everything will label you a trouble-maker. Know your priorities so you can pick your battles.

2. Identify obstacles. What objections will be raised and by whom? Do you need to acquire new skills? Is negotiation anxiety getting in your way? Prepare your response; don’t be caught off-guard in the middle of negotiations.

3. Do your homework. You need to know that what you’re asking fits the market. Use salary surveys and the Internet. Ask colleagues at other schools who know your work. Ask men as well as women. Find out what others get at your school; most employers don’t share that information unless you ask.

4. Define the best possible alternative. You need to know the best that can happen if you don’t reach a negotiated settlement. Never settle for less. Another job offer strengthens your bargaining position. Know your boss’s “best possible alternative” too.

5. Don’t wait until you’re desperate. Act before you’re ready to scream. Waiting builds up resentment, which backfires at the bargaining table. Happiness and anger are both contagious.

6. Establish a target or goal. Make it clear and ambitious, such as a 7% raise or $10,000. In a sales experiment, with no goal men did twice as well as women; with a goal the gender gap dropped to 30%.

7. Role play. Ease anxiety by playing the scene with a colleague as boss, taking different strategies. You’ll feel more in control when it’s for real.

8. Ask for it. Be assertive. “Women believe your boss will move you along when you’re ready, but your boss has many other irons in the fire,” she said.

9. Keep calm. Unexpected emotions damage you most. If your emotions come through in any way, take a break. Say, “Let’s meet about this again. I need some time to think about it.” She tells her students to respond to a job offer, “That’s exciting. Let me get back to you on Friday.”

10. Win-win. If you push too hard, the other person will push back. Approach the issue as a problem to be solved. Understand the other person’s perspective, interests and concerns. Ask questions and listen: “Work together to solve their problems while still addressing your interests.”

11. Bounce back. When negotiations fail, women blame themselves and men blame others. Women credit luck for their successes and lack of merit for their failures. Men’s self-esteem is more resilient. Women give up more easily, taking “no” for an answer, where a man would say, “If you can’t meet my request, how close can you come?”

Changing the culture

In industries without clear standards, men with a new MBA earn $7,000 more than women. The gap is just $2,000 in industries with clear standards. The less information is available, the worse women do in comparison to men.

With the growth of small informal businesses, the decline of unions and the shift away from defined career ladders such as faculty tenure tracks, negotiation has become more important than ever. Women are at a growing disadvantage. While they need to ask, employers also need to adapt.

Not sending that mass email about teaching opportunities discriminates against women. “I was director of graduate programs and I didn’t realize the impact of my actions,” Babcock said. To reduce gender discrimination, schools can:

  • Create standard packages so less depends on negotiation.
  • Post information openly.
  • Announce opportunities for research funding or professional development.
  • Avoid back-room deals.
  • Note who asks and who doesn’t; adjust your decisions.
  • Mentor women to speak up.
  • Ask women what they want. Don’t await their requests.

Contact Dr. Linda Babcock at:

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