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Negotiation: Women Don't Ask!

By Sarah Ballantyne, Principal Consultant

The Gender Pay Gap. Can we believe this is still up for discussion and debate? Recent figures show that the pay gap in 2019 is 11.9 per cent, compared to 11.8 in 2018 {source} Despite the government imposed new disclosure rules that name and shame employers in the hope it would improve the gender pay gap, it has been revealed that still no sectors in the UK economy where woman are paid the same as men. {source}

What’s at play here? Undoubtedly many factors; women are more likely to be in part-time, lower paid roles or sectors. 

But then I ask, are we women guilty of not asking for what we want and need?  Are we not doing ourselves justice?   Tanya Nelson, of EY, who is a member of the new commission said on the BBC Radio Scotland “Are women not being bold enough to ask?”.  Research says in fact men are 4x more likely to ask for what they want.  Take this example;  you have a man and women as MBA postgraduates entering the job market for top a sought after job with a quoted starting salary of ‘from £25K’.  The man negotiates a starting salary of £30k whereas the women accepts the £25K offered.  If you take this £5K a year difference and invest it, together with the difference on any subsequent increases annually and assume a 3% rate of interest; the pot of additional money would amount to £700K over 45 year career!!  This does not even include any bonuses, or further negotiations.  So you see can there’s a high cost to not negotiating.

At Taylor Clarke we run workshops for women in leadership and help women explore and develop their way to lead. Our philosophy is that it’s not about fixing women, because we are in some way deficient, but recognising that women and men are different, there are biological and evolutionary differences. Working better with our differences in the world of work and life.    

It’s not to say that all women aren't good at negotiation, or indeed that all men are. Some women are powerful negotiators and we have some great role models, not least Nicola Sturgeon or business powerhouse Karren Brady, Vice Chair of West Ham United football club and advisor to Alan Sugar in the Apprentice.   

American researchers Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever have written two books called Why Women Don’t and Ask for It.  They interviewed many women to uncover what holds them back and what they can do to find their way to negotiate.  Their core finding relates to the old adage “if you don’t ask you won't get!”   Since men are men are 4x more likely to ask for what they want, they are more likely to get!

So why don’t we ask? What make us hold back?  For each of us it will be different:

Negotiation combat

Many women’s perception of negotiation is formal and adversarial – taking sides and making bids and counter bids.  It’s a form of combat. Negotiation feels like fighting and is scary. There is a risk in ‘losing’ which would damage relationships that we have strived hard to develop and protect.  Women tend to feel rejection more strongly than men.  We can feel being told ‘no’ questions our abilities whereas men tend to brush it off.  As a result we are cautious and hesitant to negotiate.

Shrinking violets

Women can be too self effacing.  We have a lower sense of personal entitlement.  The line ‘because you’re worth it’ should not just be for beauty products!  We worry about over estimating our own value and looking ridiculous.  The voice in your head says “who do you think you are to ask for THAT much!”  This makes us aim too low and as we don't ask we are unlikely to get what we are really worth. We may be fearful that the company can't afford it due to redundancies, profit issues etc. so we put other’s needs and worth above our own.  In December we held a session for women about presence and impact and one of the participants went away fired up to ask for more salary as she managed her company’s biggest account and she knew she was paid less that her peers.  I spoke to her recently for an update.  She had spoken to her boss but the timing wasn’t right, company heading for tough times.. however she remains clear she is going to ask for more when the timing is better and especially if it looks like she’s going to be asked to take on more responsibilities.

Who’s really in control?

Men are more likely to believe they have control, whereas women think the locus of control is external to them – other people or circumstances dictate. Put another way, when asked 'who determines my worth’, 85% of men believe they do, but only 17% of women. An example of this is two colleagues, a man and a woman, discussed a recent stay at a 5 star hotel, the women said it was fantastic, but for such a great hotel, I’m really disappointed there was no fluffy white bath robe or slippers.  The guy looked at her surprised and said why didn’t you just call reception and ask for them?  How many times have you just made do with what you are given, your lot in life? !  Who determines what work you get to do? Your boss? You client?  It’s easy to assume or hope that others will give you what you want.  However the reality is only we ourselves know what we want and need and we have to take control of our own destiny.   The biggest factor in negotiation success is deciding to negotiate!

Biases against women

As well as the above internal factors, external biases are at play in how women approach negotiation:

The first bias is one I have been personally susceptible to:  gender stereotypes about what is women’s work.  This can mean we don’t ask for help in the work we have to do, especially at home. In my family the way domestic chores are divided are in large part down to me. When our daughter was born and I was on maternity leave and then worked part-time, I assumed the mantle of doing the washing, cleaning, cooking etc.  My husband is perfectly capable but there is an unconscious bias that those domestic chores are my role first and foremost.   However, moving back to working full time needs a better balance.  In her book, Lean In, about women navigating the career and life ladder, Sheryl Sandberg advises you to make your partner a real partner. Domestic and childcare duties need to be shared.

The Double Bind

There is a ‘double bind’ that acts against women - we have an idealist view of how women should be; warm, caring, understanding, nice.  We are penalised for being forthright and direct.  The double bind is that the exact same forthright stance in men is seen as perfectly OK and acceptable.  It’s how men are expected to be.  If a women takes a firm stand on a single issue negotiation (by that I mean one request is in the frame) the chances are that she will be seen as being too pushy and demanding:  “Who does she think she is?”   Unfair, but true!  Even we as women are likely to think this way when we are negotiating with other women.  The result is we feel we have to tone down our stance, to be seen as less pushy, demanding.  If we are not careful this can prevent us from asking high and holding out for what we are really worth.

Always have a woman in your corner

If you ever need someone to negotiate for you, make sure that person is a women. Research suggests two things: 1. If you are a man you are better negotiating for yourself and 2. Women outperform men by 20% when they negotiate as representatives of others. This bodes well for finding our way to negotiate; when we negotiate collaboratively i.e. taking the interests of others into account and taking a ‘how can we solve this problem together’ approach, we are more likely to be successful.

What can you do to strengthen your ability to negotiate?

If you are not a natural negotiator, get started by building up from small negotiations in areas that are easy, like taking back that pair of jeans that are not quite right but it’s now a week over the 28 days return policy, or asking your boss not to leave dumping a load of work on you at 4pm on a Friday, instead ask them at midday what they need by the end of the day.  Before a big negotiation practice by getting someone to help you role play, get them to throw you the difficult or challenging questions you fear so you can rehearse your answers.  Practice using the collaborative ‘how can we find a solution’ language, asking for help or and finding out what’s in their mind for a win-win solution.

Finally, in closing I’d be missing a great negotiation opportunity if I did not make an ‘ask’ from you… if you have enjoyed this blog and you are keen to explore this and similar topics of relevance to women, I’d love it if you were able to come along and join like-minded women at one of Taylor Clarke’s 'Women in leadership' workshops. They are a great way to network and develop your skills. Please come and join us!


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