It’s been nearly 10 years since Sara Laschever and Linda Babcock launched a new phase of the women’s movement with their groundbreaking book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide.
The authors proclaimed that women lagged behind their male colleagues in salaries, bonuses, promotions, and perks simply because they hadn’t “asked for it.” They were right.
They were also right in their judgment that women didn’t like to ask—and weren’t going to start asking anytime soon.
And that shouldn’t have been a surprise to any of us.
Not only has our culture instilled in women a disinclination to be self-serving, when we do work up the nerve to ask, we’re likely to experience “gender blow-back”—a subtle but powerful punishment for stepping outside our cultural gender role.
Take this example: Several years ago, I was the lead partner supervising a staff of five attorneys and two paralegals in a quarter billion dollar antitrust action, and was sitting in on my compensation committee meeting.
After reminding the committee members of the scope of my responsibilities and the considerable accomplishments my team had achieved that year, the managing partner asked me what I expected my salary to be in the coming year.
Not yet being a skilled negotiator, and not wanting to seem self-serving, I said that I believed I should be compensated in a sum that reflected the extent of my responsibilities and the amount of money I’d brought into the firm.
The managing partner’s eyes grew wide. He shook his head incredulously and said, “if we did that, you’d be making as much as I am.”
I knew there were other metrics to consider—his job included business development and participation in firm governance, neither of which were my strong suits. But I didn’t want to appear uncertain. So I responded by saying that if we were doing the same work and bringing in the same amount of money, my compensation should be similar to his.
Several months later, as I was taking my leave from that law firm, the managing partner told me that he’d never felt so insulted in his entire legal career as that day, when I’d said I should be paid as well as he was being paid.
As my experience showed, women suffer economically because we fail to ask, but we’re punished for our nerve when we do ask. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, right?
No, we’re not. There’s another solution.
What we need to do is learn to powerfully ask for our true market value. We can do that by starting the conversation with offers of benefits rather than requests. Or we can courageously cross that gender boundary and bring those angered by the “gall” of our asking back into a collaborative negotiation. And we can do it in a manner that doesn’t leave anyone insulted or undercompensated.
Here’s the process in a nutshell.
1. Learn Your True Market Value
Women tend to underestimate our worth for many reasons, including the simple fact that we’ve gotten used to being paid 20 to 30% less than our male colleagues.
Once we get a handle on our true market value, however—what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller, gender notwithstanding—we can begin to have a conversation leading to agreement.
That’s all a negotiation is: a conversation between two or more people whose purpose is to agree to terms beneficial for all. The good news for women is that we love conversation. We’re also pretty fond of agreement. And because we hate the word “negotiation” so much, let’s just call it a conversation from here on out.
2. Start by Asking “Diagnostic Questions"
Any conversation aimed at creating an agreement starts most effectively when we ask the other person questions that will reveal his true needs, desires, fears, preferences, and priorities.
Professor Leigh Thompson at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University says that 93% of all negotiators fail to ask these “diagnostic questions” in circumstances where getting them answered would significantly improve the outcome of our negotiations.
So that means that just by starting the process with questions about what your bargaining partner wants—you’ve entered the realm of the super-skilled 7% of all negotiators!
3. Then, Offer Benefits
Once you know what your negotiation partner wants, you can offer to provide it to him before you ask for a single thing yourself. Remember Oliver, the orphan shamed for asking for another spoon of gruel? If Oliver had begun his negotiating strategy by offering rather than asking, he could have set into motion a chain of events that would have led to a better breakfast.
Imagine if Oliver had approached the headmistress with an offer to clean the dining hall and polish the flatware after breakfast. “I’d be able to include a shoe shine for both you and the headmaster if I only had a little additional gruel, and perhaps an egg for energy,” he’d say, smiling with his most ingratiating grin.
Perhaps Oliver wouldn’t have gotten everything he wanted that way, but he would have had a far greater chance of if he’d learned about conversations leading to agreement before holding up his bowl and asking for more.
4. Tit for Tat
You’ve tried all that and it hasn’t worked? I’m not surprised. I’ve had some pretty high-flying executive clients shamed for seeking a 20% raise. But I’ve also seen them walk through that shame, concluding their agreement-conversations with 30 to 40% increases in pay.
If you know how to play “tit for tat,” your negotiation partner will often feel shame for having allowed his temper to flare up at you for simply asking.
“I’m surprised that you’re angry,” one of my clients said to her negotiation partner after I'd taught her this strategy. “I assumed a law firm as prestigious as yours was paying market rates.” On another occasion, she used silence, which brought not only a quick apology, but an additional concession.
When you respond to insults with dignity, penalize your negotiation partner for his outburst with a proportional punishment, and quickly return to cooperation when he apologizes, you can turn your superior’s harrumph into your triumph in short order.
5. Next Steps
No one, of course, can expect to learn everything she needs to know to become a powerful asker by simply reading about negotiation theory in an article. It takes practice. And, of course, every situation is different.
And that’s why I’m kicking off this series. Starting now, I’ll provide guidance right here to help you get what you want—and what you deserve—out of negotiations. So try it out. If you see an opportunity—start the conversation and go negotiate. Send me your toughest questions as you go, and I’ll answer them right here, so that everyone else reading will benefit from your experience, too.
In that way, we’ll all begin to expect wage parity. And as we come to expect it, our employers and customers will come to expect us to ask for it.
And before we know it, the wage gap will recede so far into the distance that we’ll talk about it in the same way we laugh at how we once put up with those “Help Wanted: Women” and “Help Wanted: Men” classified ads.
So go ahead—ask me anything. And join me as the rubber of this new wave women’s movement is about to hit the corporate road.