One of the favourite topics for research in the area of women’s leadership is on why women generally do not negotiate for themselves. There is substantial amount of research on why women don’t ask and how this results in us getting much less in life, especially professional lives. It is bad enough that we have to counter the subtle and not so subtle gender biases, but our inability to ask worsens it. One research paper even quantifies it with an example where two MBA grads, a man and a woman, start out with a $100K salary. The man negotiates and gets a 10% increase. The woman does not negotiate. After 35 years, assuming both get a similar yearly hike and investment returns, the difference in total earnings between the two ends up being a staggering $1.6 million (Source: First you have to ask).
I wanted to address this issue in a women’s leadership program that my company is running at a major technology firm. We introduced a half-day session on negotiation in the ongoing six month program. Given all the material available on the topic today and assuming that these younger generation women would be more savvy at negotiation, we decided the topic wouldn’t warrant a whole day.
But we were wrong! It turned out to be an intense session, where every one of the 30 women had personal stories. Almost all of them felt very strongly around the topic of their salaries and promotions. Most felt their compensation was below par compared to their male colleagues or that they were overlooked for promotions. And every one of them accepted that they felt awkward about asking for more. And in a few instances where they had mustered up the courage to ask, they felt the negotiations hadn’t gone the way they wanted. In some ways it was not very different from my own past experience.
Why do we as women feel so awkward to ask for something that is rightfully ours? Why do we hesitate to put forth a case for ourselves? Why don’t we just ask? Most men don’t seem to have an issue negotiating for what they want at workplace.
Social scientists have put forth many reasons. Our social conditioning to put everyone else ahead of us at the cost of self, is a major one. Facing the backlash of being termed “aggressive” when one is assertive is another reason for the hesitation. But I feel there is also a deeper reason. That is, asking makes us feel vulnerable.
When we ask for something, we open up our deep desires and aspirations. When we ask for what is due to us it can invite scrutiny and judgment by many. We might be compared with others. We can face attack and be pushed to defend. And all this makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. The guilt of asking for one self, further reinforces the sense of vulnerability. Such experiences trigger strong emotions that we do not want to exhibit at workplace. Hence we do not want to “fight” for what we believe is just and fair for ourselves. Also as adults, when we ask for something we do not want to be disappointed. We would rather be quiet and hope that someone will take notice of our work and do what is right and responsible.
We want to begin to ask. We want to win with asking. First we need to start operating out of new mental models. Asking for self is good. It is the only way to help others. Only when I take care of myself, I will be able to care for others. When asking, I am defining the value I bring, and that promotion or a bigger role or a pay raise becomes a measure of recognition of that value. When I present who I am and what I can, it is key to remember that I am not exposing myself and therefore should not feel weak and vulnerable. Rather I hold up and celebrate my greatness.
Preparation comes next. One can actually convert the vulnerability to strength by preparing well before asking. Define the “why” or the purpose of your asking and clearly envision the outcomes you want. Fear of failing can be a good thing sometimes, as it helps one evaluate all the scenarios and have back up plans. Ask a colleague, may be a male colleague on how to present your case. Rehearse it. Role play. Brainstorm all the potential questions that might arise and answer them to yourself. Be comfortable with the act of asking. A well prepared and executed asking also has the potential to trigger some small shifts in managers thinking. Your preparedness and the confidence will be noticed.
Now the asking. Some 2000 years ago a wise man in the Middle East said “Ask and it shall be given unto you”. It holds true in our professional situation even today. You may not get everything you ask for, but if you don’t ask you may not get anything. And like everything else, where practice makes one perfect in that skill, asking too is a skill that one can get better at by practicing. Like Bill Hoogterp says in his talk “with practice you go through the valley of awkward and come out the mountain of smooth”.