A Conversation with Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Q: What first led you to suspect that women don't ask for what they want as much as men do?

A: Linda first noticed this difference among her graduate students. While she was director of the Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon, she realized that her male graduate students asked for all sorts of things—travel money to go to conferences, exemptions from course requirements, opportunities to teach courses of their own—that the female students rarely asked for. Looking at the repercussions down the road, it became clear to her that, as a result, the female students were missing out on a lot of resources and opportunities from which the men were benefiting, and from which they would reap ongoing benefits later on in their careers. She began to wonder if this difference between her students pointed to a more pervasive difference between men and women everywhere.

Q: Can you describe the evidence that convinced you of the drastic gap between men's and women's propensity to ask for what they want?

A: Along with some colleagues, Linda devised several studies using very different methods and they all came up with the same result: Women are much less likely than men to ask for what they want and to use negotiation as a tool to promote their own ambitions or desires. Sara interviewed nearly 100 people all over the country—both men and women—and found the same thing. Men use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want between two and nine times as often as women do.

Q: How is your book different from the scores of other negotiation books?

A: Other books on women and negotiation look at differences in the ways men and women conduct negotiations when they negotiate. Our book is the first to recognize that women don't even get to the negotiation table—they don't try to negotiate—nearly as often as men. The best negotiation advice in the world won't do a woman any good if she never actually gets to the bargaining table.

Q: Is this an anti-feminist book? Doesn't it blame women for their own problems?

A: On the contrary, this book, like most feminist works, looks at structural problems in our society that prevent women from being as free as men to choose who they want to be, what they want to do, and how they want to behave. And it suggests ways that women, businesses, and society as a whole can change to make our culture more open and equitable—a culture in which men and women can enjoy and take advantage of the same opportunities.

Q: Isn't this just a "boomer problem"— something that women in their 40s and older need to worry about? Don't younger women ask for what they want just as much as men?

A: It's funny that so many people assume this. A lot of the younger women we talked to even said as much in their interviews. They believe that they're just as assertive about what they want as their male peers. Unfortunately, this is not true. Younger women may assume that things have changed far more than they have, but our studies show that even among men and women in their 20s and early 30s, men are much more likely to initiate negotiations than women.

Q: What are the consequences in the workplace?

A: The consequences for women are pretty extreme: First and foremost, they earn much less money than men over the course of their careers. We calculated that just by not negotiating her first job offer—simply accepting what she's offered rather than negotiating for more—a woman sacrifices more half a million dollars over the course of her career. This is a massive loss for a one-time negotiation—for avoiding what is usually no more than five minutes of discomfort—and it's an unnecessary loss, because most employers expect people to negotiate and therefore offer less than they're prepared to pay. And far more men than women negotiate their first offers. Since men also negotiate more than women throughout their careers—or negotiate more aggressively—the financial losses to women can be truly staggering.

In addition to the financial consequences, women often advance more slowly than equally qualified men because men are more likely than women to ask for prestigious assignments, volunteer for opportunities that will give them more visibility, and pursue raises and promotions that they think they deserve. Women, in contrast, often expect that hard work and high quality work will be recognized and rewarded without their asking. And this is frequently not true. Because they don't ask to be considered for the opportunities and advantages for which men ask, they often aren't recognized for the good work they do and don't progress as fast or as far in their careers as their talents should take them.

The consequences for businesses are also substantial. Promoting men faster than women and paying them more, even if done so unintentionally, can make a company vulnerable to lawsuits from women about inequitable treatment. Even more important, perhaps, businesses that don't recognize this problem aren't making the best use of their "human capital." The person who raises his hand and asks for an assignment may be the one who gets it, but he may not be the most qualified person to do that job. By drawing from only "half the team"—by promoting men more than women because the men ask—businesses don't always promote the best people. As a result, they under-use women's skills, fail to make the most of their potential—and limit their companies' productivity and growth. They also lose the advantage of the unique points-of-view women often bring to decision-making and problem-solving.

Businesses also lose in very direct economic ways when women see their male colleagues getting more recognition and advancing faster—and leave for other jobs, taking their valuable training and skills out the door with them. Attrition cost American companies $11 billion last year, and a large portion of that turnover can be attributed to women leaving jobs where their talents haven't been cultivated and their contributions haven't been appreciated.

Q: What are the consequences at home?

A: Married women who work full time still do two-thirds of the housework and child care. This seems to be because many women don't see these household duties as negotiable, or they don't see intimate relations as an appropriate sphere for negotiating, or because they fear that asking for more help will jeopardize their relationships. So they don't ask their partners for a more equitable distribution of work around the house. The result is that women as a group tend to have much less leisure time than men, and unlike men their stress levels often jack up dramatically at the end of the work day as they approach their "second shift." Constant stress of this sort can be a significant risk factor for some of the major diseases that afflict women, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and depression. If men understood that they were putting the women they love at risk for these diseases, we're convinced that many of them would happily reexamine who does what around the house and try to share more of those chores.

Men also see the women they love—their wives, sisters, and daughters—suffer from this problem, not getting what they deserve at work and seeing their talents undervalued and under-rewarded.

Q: If women aren't asking for the things men ask for and get, does this mean that women have been to blame all along for the inequality between the sexes?

A: Far from it. The evidence is overwhelming that this a problem for which our entire society is to blame—that it is a socially constructed problem rather than something innate to females or just a blind spot women don't recognize. As a society, we teach women that it is not appropriate or "feminine" for them to focus on what they want, assert their own ambitions, and pursue their self-interest—and we don't like it when they do. From the time they're very young, girls are taught to focus on the needs of others rather than on their own. The messages girls receive—from their parents and teachers, from the books they're given, from the movies and television shows they watch, and from the behavior of the adults around them—can be so powerful that as women they may not even understand that their reluctance to ask for what they want is a learned behavior, and one that can be unlearned. They often don't realize that they can ask for something they want, that asking is even possible.

Q: How does your research show what causes these differences between men and women?

Our book draws on a wealth of psychological research that shows the different ways in which boys and girls are socialized in our society— by the kinds of toys that are seen as "girls' toys" and "boys' toys," the different types of chores typically assigned to girls and boys, and the different types of games that adults guide them toward playing. We show what these chores and toys teach girls about their appropriate role in society and what the games they play teach them about compliance versus independence, for example.

Our research also shows that society has a strong expectation that women will abide by their assigned "roles" and reacts very negatively when they don't. Behavior that can lead a man to be seen as a "straight-shooter" or a "no-nonsense guy" can lead a woman to be seen as too pushy and aggressive. She may be called a bitch or worse, receive negative evaluations based solely on her personal style rather than on the quality of her work, and she may find herself closed out of networks or opportunities from which she might benefit.

Q: Do your findings mean that women aren't as good as men at jobs that require a lot of negotiation for their organizations?

A: Absolutely not. Women don't have any problem negotiating on behalf of others—and they can be great negotiators when they're promoting their company's interests. This reluctance to initiate negotiations only seems to strike women around asking for things for themselves—for raises, promotions, plum projects, more help around the house, even for their sexual partners to wear condoms. Women are excellent advocates on behalf of others, whether the "other" is an employer, a colleague, a friend, or a family member.

Q: When women do negotiate, isn't there anything about their approach that's actually superior to the typical approach taken by men? Are men better negotiators than women in every way?

Men are not better negotiators than women. Women more often than men take a "collaborative" or cooperative approach to negotiation that has been shown to produce agreements that are better for both sides. Women are more likely than men to listen to the needs and concerns of the other side, communicate their own priorities and pressures, and try to find solutions that benefit all parties—to find the win/win solutions. This approach not only leads to better outcomes for everyone, it often produces creative solutions to problems that might have been overlooked by men taking a more competitive or adversarial approach. Also, by looking for those win/win solutions, women tend to preserve and enhance long-term business relationships—they don't burn as many bridges as men who focus on short-term gains.

Q: How do we know that these are not just generalizations about sexes?

A: Well, of course they're generalizations. Within any group, you're going to find a wide range of variation and we're not claiming that our findings pertain to all women. We know (and interviewed) many women who do ask for themselves and are very successful at getting what they want. But the data are clear: These women are the exception rather than the rule. Women can be great negotiators on behalf of others but the average woman in our society today has a lot more trouble advocating for her own interests and often struggles with feeling entitled to what she wants.

Q: Are you saying that women should be more like men?

Absolutely not. Plenty of studies have shown that this doesn't work for women—that the double standard persists and we don't accept the same behavior from women that we accept from men. But this doesn't mean women that should just give up and stop asking for anything. Women can ask for what they want in ways that feel comfortable to them and that society will accept. By not seeming overly aggressive, women can actually remain tough on the issues they're negotiating—they just need to be gentle with the people involved. Of course, it's kind of nutty that women aren't allowed simply to be competent and focus on the task at hand and be listened to and respected. Women have to worry much more than men about how they will be perceived when they ask for what they want and this puts an unfair burden on women. Unfortunately, however, that's currently the situation in our society. For women who are pragmatists, asking for what they want in a more social, friendly way can be a very effective strategy for getting what they want—without turning people against them.

Q: Won't women impede their chances at advancement if they start asking for everything and negotiating left and right? Won't this cause a backlash?

A: Well, we're not encouraging women to cut loose and grab at everything they see. Women need to identify those things that are most important to them—what they really want—and pursue those things. And, as we just said, they need to ask "as women," using a softer, more "feminine" style, because they do risk a backlash if they're perceived as too aggressive.

Q: How can women know when it is appropriate to ask for something and when it isn't?

The first step is for women to assume that most things in their lives are negotiable—that they don't have to accept the status quo as fixed and rigid and settle for whatever they're offered. This one mental adjustment can produce extraordinary results for women—we've seen it happen time after time. We'll explain the ideas in our book, and it will be like a barrier in a woman's mind falls and she starts to see the world differently. We've had many women come back to us with stories of asking for something they never thought they could get and getting it, or at least getting far more than they would have gotten if they hadn't asked.

Now, our economy is in a slump. Many people, both men and women, know that their companies aren't doing too well and they're reluctant to ask for big raises—sometimes they're reluctant to ask for raises at all. But that doesn't mean that they can't ask for plenty of other things if they feel that they deserve more recognition or that a change in their circumstances would improve the quality of their lives. They can ask for more vacation time, for a flexible work schedule, for tuition to take courses they feel will improve their skills. They can ask for better titles even if those titles won't come with a lot more money. And they can always ask to work on projects that interest them, to get a crack at opportunities that will promote their advancement and show off their abilities, and to do work that they find more challenging or more creative.

They can also investigate what other people are getting for doing the same work to get a better idea of whether they should be asking for more. They can do this by talking to both their male and female peers—people in and outside of their organizations doing similar work at the same level—about their compensation and other benefits. They can also research the "going rates" for their skills and positions on the Internet, through trade journals, and in salary surveys.

At home, the economy is less of an issue. The reality is that managing a household and raising children is enormously demanding and important work—and in many households there are two adults to do that work. Once again, women can talk to their peers about the arrangements they have at home, and regardless of the state of our economy they can ask for a fairer, healthier, and more appropriate division of household labor.

As for how women can know if and when it's appropriate to ask, we have two answers: One is that many women have excellent relationship skills and good intuition about what's going on with the people around them, and this can help. The second is that women can ask: They can ask if it's a good time to talk about what they want. If their supervisor or co-worker or partner or spouse says no, they can ask to find a better time for this discussion.

Q: What can women do to improve their negotiation skills?

A: We provide a lot of advice about this in the book. In addition to thinking of the world as a more "negotiable" place, women can begin thinking differently about negotiation—seeing it as an opportunity to benefit everyone involved rather than as an aggressive or adversarial act. In this way, they can reframe their negotiations in ways that make them feel more comfortable with the whole process. They can also set higher goals for themselves going into a negotiation, because there's a direct correlation between goals and outcomes—the more you ask for, the more you get, and men tend to ask for a lot more than women. And they can role-play their negotiations beforehand in order to anticipate and develop responses to the "moves" made by the other side, which can reduce their anxiety and give them a greater sense of control over the whole process.

But it's not just women who need to "improve" or change. We also have a lot to say in the book about what society can and should do to make it more comfortable and acceptable for women to ask for what they want—and ask in any way that suits them.

Q: What can companies and managers do to level the playing field for male and female workers?

A: Right off the top, companies and managers need to realize the impact of the different rates at which men and women ask for rewards and opportunities. They can then mentor women in their organizations about the importance of letting their supervisors know what they want and what would help them do their jobs better. When a man asks for something, they can stop to consider whether a woman in the organization might be equally interested in that opportunity and possibly more qualified to make the most of it. They can also attempt to change their organizational culture to make it more acceptable for women to assert their personal goals and ask for what they want. A great way to do this is to track the relative progress of men and women in an organization and make managers accountable for women's advancement—make the progress of the women they supervise part of their own performance evaluations. This can create a powerful incentive for managers to correct the inequities over which they preside.



Men expect to earn 13% more than women during their first year of full-time work