Book Excerpt: Ask For It!

By Sara Laschever
Co-author, ASK FOR IT and WOMEN DON'T ASK.

Why you need to ask

IF YOU'RE A WOMAN, you probably have a voice inside your head that whispers:


"Are you sure you're as good as you think you are?"

Or maybe it says:

"Why can't you be happy with what you've got? Don't you have enough already?"

Or perhaps, even though you're very successful, you hear that voice warning:

"Watch out. Don't get pushy. . . ."

This voice probably talks the loudest when you're thinking about asking for something you want—a raise, a better title, more power or responsibility, or even more help around the house. And the odds are, you listen to this voice. You may think it's the voice of experience, or maybe your common sense preventing you from doing something rash. Or perhaps you think you should be grateful for what you've got—you should feel lucky—and not screw things up by reaching for more.

We've written this book to help you talk back to that voice. Because that voice is not the voice of experience and it's not your common sense. It's not even your voice. It's the voice of a society that hasn't progressed nearly as far as we'd like to think, a society that's still trying to tell women how they should and shouldn't behave. It's a voice whose message is conveyed, often unwittingly, by our parents, teachers, colleagues, and friends—and then repeated and amplified by the media and popular culture.

If you have that voice in your head, whoever's voice it is, that voice is holding you back. It's slowing you down, it's damaging your self-esteem, and it's costing you money. By telling you not to ask for the things you want, that voice is cutting you off from dozens—maybe hundreds—of opportunities to improve your life and increase your happiness. It's also preventing you from learning how to negotiate for what you need with skill and confidence. It's preventing you from discovering the ways in which negotiating effectively can be an extraordinary tool for transforming your life.

Women don't ask

We know that this is true—that women don't ask for what they want and need, and suffer severe consequences as a result—because we've spent years studying the phenomenon. In the mid-1990s, Linda was serving as the director of the Ph.D. program at the Heinz School, the graduate school of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University, where she teaches. One day a group of female graduate students came to her office. "Why are most of the male students in the program teaching their own courses this fall," the women asked, "while all the female graduate students have been assigned to act as teaching assistants to regular faculty?" Not knowing the answer, Linda took the students' question to the associate dean in charge of making teaching assignments, who happened to be her husband. His reply was straightforward. "I'll try to find teaching opportunities for any student who approaches me with a good idea for a course, the ability to teach, and a reasonable offer about what it will cost," he said. "More men ask. The women just don't ask."

Could he be right? Linda recalled other situations in which a female student had protested because a male student had enjoyed some form of special treatment. One woman told Linda that she assumed she couldn't march in June graduation ceremonies the year she completed her dissertation because she wasn't scheduled to get her degree until August. She asked why Linda had allowed two men to march who also didn't finish until the end of the summer. Another woman asked why Linda had found funding for a male student to attend an important public policy conference and hadn't provided the same opportunity to her. A third woman observed a male student using department facilities to print up business stationery for himself and said she thought it was unfair that other students weren't allowed to do the same. In each case, the men had asked, and Linda, who saw it as a central part of her job to help students in any way she could, happily obliged.

Linda realized with chagrin that she'd been perpetuating discrimination—the last thing she wanted to do—simply by not noticing how much more often men asked for things that would help them get ahead. And the discrimination she'd perpetuated could have far-reaching consequences. Men with teaching experience would have meatier resumes and appear better qualified when they entered the job market than women who did not. The man who attended the public policy conference made valuable contacts that could be useful later in his career, and the woman who couldn't afford to go had missed out. The man who printed up his own stationery was able to present himself as a more polished and professional job candidate than the women who had not.

The social scientist in Linda perked up. She'd spent ten years teaching negotiation to students, salespeople, business executives, scientists, physicians, lawyers, and women's leadership groups. Did this difference in the rate of asking between her male and female students indicate that women weren't using negotiation to promote their careers as much as they could be? Was this a problem that contributed to the unequal treatment of women throughout their adult lives?

Linda turned to the existing research about gender differences in negotiation to find out. What she discovered surprised her: This large body of research looked almost exclusively at how men and women behave when they're negotiating. No one had taken a step back to look at what motivates people to negotiate in the first place, and—more significantly—whether men and women use negotiation to advance their goals at the same rate.

Eager to learn more, Linda and several colleagues launched a research program to explore these questions. She and her collaborators invited men and women into their research lab, asked them to play carefully designed games, and observed whether they used negotiation to improve their positions. They sent graduate students armed with questionnaires to airports and shopping malls. They designed experiments that explored the emotions people associate with negotiation. They created a huge Web survey to poll people of every age and economic group, from the lowest-skilled to the highest-paid professionals, about their attitudes toward negotiation. This survey asked participants about how and when they used negotiation and about the types of situations in which they felt they could negotiate. The bottom line: In every study, Linda's team found clear and consistent evidence that men initiate negotiations to advance their own interests about four times as frequently as women do.

The cost of not asking

Does this difference matter? Does the relative infrequency with which women assert what they want actually cost women, and if so, what are the costs? Since the wage differential between men and women still hovers around 77 percent—meaning women on average earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man—Linda decided to look first at salaries. What she found shocked her: Not negotiating their salaries, it turns out, can be outrageously expensive for women. Here are a few examples of how costly it can be.

At twenty-two, just out of college, you and a twenty-two-year-old man with the same qualifications are offered the same job for the same salary: $25,000. You accept the $25,000 while the man negotiates and raises his starting salary to $30,000. The man deposits the extra $5,000 in a low-earning account, an account that grows about 3 percent every year. Throughout your working lives, the two of you both average 3 percent annual salary increases but of course your salary can't keep pace with his because he started out higher. Every year, the man takes the difference between what he would have earned if he'd accepted the $25,000 (what you're earning) and what he's actually earning because he negotiated for more, and he adds that amount to the same low-yield account he opened when he was twenty-two. By the time he's ready to retire at sixty-five, that account contains $784,192—over three-quarters of a million dollars accumulated simply because he negotiated that one time. That's over three-quarters of a million dollars you don't have because you didn't negotiate. If the man puts the money in an account earning 5 or 6 percent, his gains would be even higher.

At thirty, having just completed your MBA, you and a male peer receive job offers for $100,000. You take the $100,000—that's a lot of money, after all—but the man negotiates and gets his offer raised to $115,000. You both average 3 percent raises every year; he invests his extra money in an account earning 3 percent, and by the time you both reach sixty-five he's saved $1,519,486 (over $1.5 million) more than you have.

You're forty, you're not in a high-flying profession, and you've already reached the middle of your career. You know you've been chronically underpaid by market standards but you assume it's too late to do anything about it. You and a male colleague in the same position both launch a job search. You each receive offers for $70,000 a year, which you know is at the low end of the range for someone with your training and experience. Nevertheless, you accept the $70,000 your male colleague negotiates to correct this imbalance and gets the offer raised to $77,000. Every year until he retires, he invests the extra amount in a low-yield account and accumulates $381,067 more by the time you both reach sixty-five—a nice addition to his retirement nest egg.

Those sums are high enough in themselves. When you add in other forms of compensation that are often tied to salary, such as bonuses, stock options, severance packages, and pension benefits (all of which women are also less likely to negotiate), the financial losses a woman can suffer from not negotiating become truly staggering.

But what if, like many of us, you don't measure your happiness by the size of your paycheck? Even so, financial costs this steep can make it hard to do many of the other things that matter to you more, such as owning a safe and comfortable home, educating your children, taking care of your family, and giving back to your community. The problem extends beyond the financial realm, in any case. Think about all the things you might negotiate besides your salary. Linda's research group also found that women frequently don't ask to be promoted before a promotion has been offered, don't request project assignments that match their skills and interests, and don't propose taking on more responsibility as soon as they feel ready. Women don't ask if they can work with people from whom they can learn and don't request additional training that could move them ahead faster. Women don't ask to be recognized for their hard work, ideas, and contributions, and this costs them dearly as well. Just as small income differences can rapidly turn into huge disparities, small differences in how one's work is evaluated can start a process that snowballs throughout one's working life. The result is no surprise: Women earn less money, progress more slowly in their careers, and don't rise as high as similarly talented men.

Spreading the word

Convinced that these findings were too important to be confined to academic journals, Linda decided to write a book to help women understand and combat this force holding them back. She knew she needed a partner in this endeavor, however, and one who shared her passion for helping women achieve greater fulfillment in their lives. After a little searching, she found Sara.

Sara had spent much of her career exploring the barriers women face, especially in male-dominated professions, as they pursue life and career paths that differ dramatically from those of their mothers—and in many cases from those they'd originally planned to follow. She'd written extensively about women in literature and the arts, women in academia, and women in business—about their struggles and their remarkable accomplishments too.

Once the two of us joined forces, Sara set off traveling around the country, interviewing women about their experiences with negotiation. She talked to women from every walk of life; women of every age and race; women with different political views and religious beliefs; women with high school diplomas, vocational training experience, and advanced degrees from the most elite colleges in the nation. She talked to women who work full-time, women who work part-time, and women who devote all their time to caring for their children or elderly relatives. She heard story after story about women hesitating to negotiate on their own behalf and suffering the consequences.

Using these stories to help explain and illustrate Linda's data, the two of us wrote our first book, Women Don't Ask. In it, we looked closely at the causes of this difference in negotiation behavior between men and women, and showed the far-reaching impact of the phenomenon—on women, their families, their employers or employees, and society as a whole. We also established that it's not just older women who hesitate to negotiate for themselves. Many of the younger women Sara interviewed, especially the more successful ones, denied that they had any trouble asking for what they want. They negotiate for themselves just as much as their male colleagues do, they claimed. Unfortunately, Linda's data revealed this to be untrue. Despite advances made by women over the last few decades, the gap in the frequency with which younger men and women negotiate is about the same as the gap between older men and women. That young women don't know this puts them at an even greater disadvantage.

We found that the problem has a profound impact on the lives of women outside the workplace too. Married women who work full-time still perform two-thirds of the housework and child care at home. They enjoy far less leisure time than their male partners, and—unlike men with families—experience a dramatic upward spike in their stress levels at the end of the workday as they approach their "second shift." Constant stress of this sort can produce sustained elevated levels of stress hormones in one's blood, a significant risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, and depression, some of the major diseases that afflict women.

Changing women's lives

Women Don't Ask created something of a sensation, with reviews of the book and discussions of our ideas appearing in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Fortune, the Economist, BusinessWeek, and the Harvard Business Review, as well as USA Today, Glamour, Self, Cosmopolitan, the Times (London), the International Herald Tribune, and French Cosmo. The two of us were interviewed about the book on local, national, and international radio and television shows, and U.S. Representatives John Dingell and Carolyn Maloney invited us to give a congressional briefing about our findings and their impact on the glass ceiling.

Excerpted from Ask For It by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever Copyright © 2008 by Linda Babcock. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc.