About 10 years ago, a group of female graduate students appeared in the office of their program's director, professor Linda Babcock, at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, with a complaint. Their male counterparts in the program would all be teaching their own courses in an upcoming semester, the women said, while they were left serving as mere teaching assistants. Why had they been passed over? As Babcock recounts in her new book with Sara Laschever, "Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want" (Bantam, 2008), she took the students' concerns to the associate dean in charge of teaching assignments. He explained that he sought out opportunities for students who approached him about teaching courses. The gender difference was simple to explain, he said: "More men ask. The women don't ask."
When do women pass up opportunities to negotiate, and at what cost? What strategies can women adopt to ensure that their appeals are well received? How can organizations better support women negotiators?
Salary aside, Babcock says that men are more likely than women to negotiate for resources, training and other factors that boost job satisfaction and success. It stands to reason that men who seek out career opportunities will advance more quickly in their organizations than equally qualified women who do not. In reaction to such inequities, women may grow frustrated and decide to quit. Given that turnover costs companies billions of dollars each year, Babcock and Laschever argue that organizations suffer significantly from the fact that women ask for what they need less often than men do.
A recent series of experiments shows that women do face a significant backlash when they assert themselves in negotiations. Babcock and colleagues Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard and Lei Lai of Carnegie Mellon had male and female participants imagine that they were senior managers evaluating an internal candidate for a position within their firms. Next, participants watched videotaped interviews of pairs of actors carrying out the job negotiation.
In evaluations of the candidates, both male and female participants (whose average age was 29) were significantly less willing to work with a female candidate who attempted to negotiate her salary than with a female candidate who did not try to negotiate salary. Female participants also penalized male negotiators who asked for more money, but male evaluators did not. Participants of both sexes viewed women who asked for more to be less nice and more demanding than women who didn't ask.
The stark truth: Women who asked for more money were disliked -- and penalized accordingly. Women's reluctance to negotiate may actually be a reasonable choice in such instances.
Having achieved significant gains in the workplace, women now face a double bind. To advance and succeed, they need to advocate for their interests -- yet when they do so, they may be punished for being unfeminine.
How can women ask for what they need without triggering a backlash? Here are three pieces of advice:
1. Collaborate to be liked. Use collaborative techniques to get what you want. When you explore the other side's interests, engage in joint problem solving and use influence strategies rather than coercion and demands, you'll be in a better position not only to create value for both sides but also to claim greater value for yourself.
2. Connect your goals to the organization's. Despite research showing that many women are reluctant to ask for what they need, evidence also suggests that women who do negotiate are likely to thrive. How did these women negotiate effectively for their success without triggering a backlash? By identifying pressing concerns within their groups, they were able to lobby for resources and responsibilities. These "small wins" in turn attracted positive attention. Connecting their individual interests to the good of their organizations helped these leaders avoid appearing aggressive and established a formula for success.
3. Navigate the shadow negotiation. When you negotiate issues that challenge people's deeply seated beliefs about gender, they may respond with moves that question your credibility and competence, according to Kolb. In their book "Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining" (Jossey-Bass, 2003), Kolb and Judith Williams write that such moves are part of a "shadow negotiation" that goes deeper than the issues at stake. Your shadow negotiation with someone encompasses how you treat each other, who gets heard and how cooperative and open you are. Women can counter demeaning, critical and threatening moves by turning the conversation in a more productive direction.
Without support from higher-ups, even women who negotiate regularly will advance only so far.
To ensure that your organization takes greater advantage of women's talents and skills, follow these three tips from Babcock and Laschever:
1. Audit your assignments. Reflect back on the work assignments you made in the past year. How often did male or female employees approach you about taking on a new opportunity? Were female employees less likely to initiate such negotiations? If so, pause the next time a man asks you for a plum assignment and consider whether he is truly the best candidate.
2. Serve as a mentor. If you've noticed that certain talented female employees are working behind the scenes, talk to them about opportunities that might attract more attention. Simply telling someone that "everything is negotiable" can have a big impact.
3. Raise awareness. Organizational policies may subtly discourage women from negotiating and advancing. If administrative staff can work flexible hours but managers cannot, some women may have trouble getting ahead, and men striving for a greater work-life balance may be at a disadvantage as well. Examine your organization's culture for such hints of bias, and institute more gender-neutral practices.