Women Don't Ask

When the Heinz School of Public Policy’s Linda Babcock noticed that male Ph.D. students were getting more opportunities to travel to conferences, get exemptions from course requirements, and teach their own classes, she began to question the system. What she found was surprisingly simple — the reason men get more opportunities than women, and the title of her book on the subject, is Women Don’t Ask.

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide explores the idea that women are generally reluctant to negotiate for the things they want and deserve, a premise confirmed in Babcock’s recent study at Arizona State University. Babcock finds that this is true for nearly all women, old and young, Ph.D.s and high school graduates, because they have grown up in a society that projects the image of docile, complacent females through role models in pop culture. According to Babcock, pop culture promotes “the message that negotiating is outside the range of behaviors that is acceptable for them.” Pop culture paints a very different for males: “The role models for boys portray very assertive behavior as being normative,” she said.

Tepper School of Business professor Laurie Weingart notices the same effects in the negotiation class she teaches. “Female students are more likely to take my course because of their discomfort with negotiating,” she said, “whereas [males] are more likely to be there to hone their skills.”

Though society’s examples make women reluctant to argue for themselves, they do not affect women’s negotiation skills. “Women are natural negotiators when it comes to protecting others they care for,” Weingart said.

The focus on the needs of others at the expense of one’s own is a personality trait that psychology professor Vicki Helgeson calls “unmitigated communion” (UC). UC scores are generally higher in women than in men, Helgeson explained. “People who score higher on UC are more accommodating and give up more during negotiations,” she said. This can have extensive consequences.

According to Babcock’s website, www.womendontask.com, a woman loses half a million dollars during her career by failing to take five minutes to negotiate her first job offer. Women also advance more slowly in the business world because, rather than asking to be considered for important assignments and promotions, they expect to be noticed for hard work alone.

Women are also reluctant to negotiate in their personal lives. According to Babcock, married women do two-thirds of the homemaking, even when they work full time. Because women refuse to ask their partners for help around the house, they have markedly less leisure time. This causes women extra stress that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions, which is consistent with. Helgeson’s findings.

Babcock explained that even though women should defy social norms by negotiating as often as men, they also have to appeal to those norms by arguing in a more feminine way. While she acknowledges that this perpetuates a double standard, Babcock argued, “the alternative isn’t great either — negotiating aggressively in some situations may cost women more than it might gain them.” Babcock suggested that a more moderate approach helps women get what they want, while reducing the chance that they will be perceived as overly aggressive.

“Women generally like women who speak in an assertive manner and find them credible and competent,” Helgeson said. “Men, however, do not like women who speak assertively, although they view them as competent.” Helgeson maintained that society needs to erase unequal behavior expectations for women and men, perhaps through exposing both genders to more assertive women through interaction in the workplace. As this happens, Helgeson said, “The expectations [for women] will change.”

While today’s adults are equalizing the definitions of acceptable behavior for men and women, Helgeson and Babcock agree that future workers should also be conditioned to accept these changes. “We need to change the way we socialize boys and girls, and that’s a tall order,” Babcock said. But first, she explained, society must accept that there is a problem. “After all,” said Babcock, “hasn’t the women’s revolution been ‘won’?”

For her part in changing the social norms, Babcock has founded the Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society (PROGRESS) to teach girls to negotiate. From PROGRESS, Girl Scouts can even earn a badge for negotiation.

Helgeson proposes that home life must also be restructured. “I think the most important change that society can make regarding the way it socializes boys and girls is for men and women to be equally involved in household labor,” she said. Children would then benefit from, in Helgeson’s words, “models of mothers and fathers who display nurturance and competence.”

Though all three women agree that change is very possible, they also know it won’t happen overnight. “People have to get used to this behavior,” Helgeson said, “and it is going to take some time.”