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Book Review: Women Don’t Ask

Jan 2012 | Ilana No Comment

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide
by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

This book review is part of our series on women in science.

As Michele described in our September 2011 issue, substantial gender imbalances persist in many fields, including in the makeup of our own MCB faculty.  The reasons underlying these gender imbalances are complex, but one contributing factor is the reluctance of many women to push for what they want and deserve.  Women Don’t Ask aims to help women become stronger advocates for their own interests.

The book uses a combination of anecdotes about individual women’s experiences with negotiation (or, commonly, with not negotiating) and the results of published studies.  This mix is generally effective, since the stories alone would be less convincing, and the research alone would be less interesting.  However, in its attempt to provide ample evidence for gender differences in negotiation, Women Don’t Ask can feel repetitive at times.

Studies show women are substantially less likely than men to negotiate in many situations, from game playing experiments to their salaries and raises. Failure to negotiate can have major consequences.  Not negotiating for your starting salary can put you hundreds of thousands of dollars behind in earnings over the course of your career. In addition to the financial consequences, failing to ask for what you’re worth can cause others to see you as less valuable.

Women are less likely than men to see situations as negotiable, and less likely to negotiate even when they know that the situation calls for it.  The authors attribute this to women’s social conditioning to please others and avoid conflict.  Women who do assert themselves and ask for what they want are often perceived as pushy or bitchy, both by men and even by other women.

The authors contend that much of women’s reluctance to negotiate can be traced back to lessons learned in early childhood about gender roles.  Despite parents’ best efforts, boys and girls are treated differently and come to perceive their roles differently.  The authors cite studies that show that girls and women value external factors and the opinions of others much more strongly than do boys and men, who are more likely to feel that they determine their own worth.  This reliance on external cues can cause women to simply wait to be recognized for their hard work, rather than seeking out rewards. Women also tend to have lower expectations for their salaries and don’t value their skills and contributions as highly as men do.

I found that many of characteristics described in Women Don’t Ask apply to me.  I’ve never made any attempt to negotiate for my salary or benefits in a job.  I found out after I started grad school that I had been paid much less in my tech job than others with comparable experience.  It’s possible that my boss would have been willing to pay me more, but it definitely didn’t occur to me to ask for a higher salary when I was offered the job.  I was grateful to have a job at all.  When I bought a car last year, I did make an effort to negotiate, but I didn’t do a very good job and I hated every second of the process.  I wanted that specific car (it was the only red one in the state—I checked) and I’m sure it was clear to the salesman that I would be willing to overpay to get it.

As I experienced in my attempt to negotiate for a car, negotiation can induce a lot of anxiety, and studies indicate that women feel more anxiety about negotiation than men do.  This may be because women are more likely to see negotiation as a form of conflict that has the potential to damage their relationships with others.  Women are socialized to value relationships and being liked by others more than men are.

So what are women to do?  Research indicates that being confident and competent while also conforming to expectations that women will be “nice” and friendly results in the best outcomes for women in negotiations and other business situations.  While it certainly seems unfair that women are held to a different standard than men, it’s still useful to know what strategy is most likely to be effective.

The authors also provide a few concrete tips for successful and less stressful negotiations.  One suggestion is to approach negotiations as a collaborative process, with the goal of finding ways to provide the maximum benefit for both sides.  This can reduce anxiety about causing conflict or damaging relationships.  Another strategy is to do your research in advance.  Know what the salary ranges are for people with similar experience in similar positions, or how much the dealer actually paid for that car.  Set high (but not unreasonable goals) and don’t give in too quickly.

On a positive note, the authors contend that in some situations, women’s tendency towards a more collaborative and cooperative approach to negotiation can actually produce better results by producing solutions in which both parties benefit, instead of one “winning” and one “losing”.

Although Women Don’t Ask focuses on the problems women often have with negotiation, it’s important to remember that plenty of men face the same anxieties and issues, and that many women are perfectly able to ask for what they want.  Nonetheless, this book is an interesting read for those of us who feel reluctant or uneasy about negotiating, and can provide insights that may help when it comes time to negotiate for that first job offer after graduation.

Rating: 3/5 Eppendorfs

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