Why Women Don’t Ask? by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Why Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation—and Positive Strategies for Change was published in 2006. It offers a compelling analysis of how women (don’t) negotiate and why it is slowing down the progress of gender equality. Most women have been taught to «be nice», work for love, and protect their relationships. As a result they are often reluctant to ask for more and negotiate whatever offer are made to them. A large part of today’s pay gap can be accounted for by this negotiation gap. The difference in men’s and women’s starting salaries leads to large pay differences over time, as the initial gap will follow women from job to job.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the global gender gap widened a bit in 2017 after a decade of progress. So it seems the pay gap is harder to eradicate than anyone imagined. Most policies have so far proved insufficient. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s book provides insightful explanations as to why these policies may be ineffective. It was the first book to clearly identify the dramatic difference between men and women in their tendency to negotiate.

Understanding that women seldom ask is critical for all HR executives. Though companies may be grateful that some of their employees (mostly women) are less demanding than others, they end up losing more by neglecting their female workforce: for lack of proper reward, female employees tend to lose their motivation, become less productive and/or eventually seek recognition elsewhere and quit their jobs. High turnover leads to high costs in recruiting and training that companies could avoid with conscious policies to reward and promote their female employees at the same level as their male employees.

Linda Babcock is a Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sara Laschever is a journalist and columnist who writes regularly for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review and other publications. The two of them draw on research in psychology, sociology, economics and organisational behaviour, and a large number of interviews to explore the reasons women don’t ask for what they need and deserve.

«They don’t for recognition for the good work they do. They don’t ask for more help at home.»

«Women don’t ask. They don’t ask for raises and promotions and better job opportunities. They don’t for recognition for the good work they do. They don’t ask for more help at home. In other words, women are much less likely than men to use negotiation to get what they want.»

«Women expect life to be fair and despite often dramatic evidence to the contrary, many of them persist in believing that it will be». - Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever in Why Women Don’t Ask.

Women don’t ask and it’s slowing down progress 

“Could it be that women don’t get more of the things they want in life in part because they don’t think to ask for them?”, ask Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever who cite countless academic studies that have shown that men negotiated their salaries much more often than women did. One such study, conducted among Carnegie Mellon graduates, showed that students who had negotiated increased their starting salaries by 7.4% on average, which also happens to be the difference between men’s and women’s average starting pay. Employers will rarely offer to pay more than they have to: they will sometimes yield to the demands expressed by some of the applicants or star employees, but will be happy to pay less if no demand is formerly made. 

Initial differences in starting salaries tend to accumulate over time and become large differences as the gap in asking will follow women from job to job and each new job’s salary will somehow be based on the previous one. Whatever their age, women tend to just accept what they are offered and not ask for more, whereas most men initiate negotiation more often (two to three times more often). There are many explanations, among which the fact that girls have been brought up to value relationships more and taught that it was their responsibility to preserve these relationships. “Women worry more than men about the impact their actions will have on their relationships. This can prompt them to change their behaviour to protect personal connections”, the authors write. 

Why “opportunity doesn’t always knock”  

“Instead of looking for ways to improve a difficult situation, women often assume that they are stuck with their circumstances”. Psychologists use the concept of “locus of control” to distinguish between two types of mindsets. The related scale measures the extent to which individuals believe that their behaviour influences their circumstances. People with an “internal” locus of control think they can “make life happen”: their behaviour largely determines their fate. Conversely, people with an “external” locus of control think that “life happens to them”: external elements decide their fate. On average, women’s locus of control is more “external” than men’s.

“Instead of looking for ways to improve a difficult situation, women often assume that they are stuck with their circumstances”

Women’s fate actually was determined by external forces until quite recently: until about 100 years ago, practically no woman had the right to vote in any Western Country. Even today, most of the world’s economic and political power remains majoritarily in the hands of men, which must have an impact on girls’ worldview and how they unconsciously shape their “locus of control”. Consequently women are more likely to believe that if they work hard and do a good job, they will “earn” their success. Men are more often aggressive in the pursuit of what they want: they learn that they need to “hustle”, advertise their achievements and ideas, collar the attention of their superiors or their clients.

Why low expectations lead to lower results

Before you decide to negotiate for something, you must first be dissatisfied with what you have… and there’s the rub: women tend to be satisfied with less. It might not be a bad philosophical position to be satisfied with whatever life gives you (lower expectations mean less unhappiness), but it’s not a good thing for equality as men are taught to expect more. «Since lower expectations are more likely to be filled than higher ones, the odds are better that these women will be satisfied with the rewards that life sends their way».

Until recently most women devoted their time to unpaid labour (domestic chores, childcare…). Even today women continue to perform a massive amount of unpaid labour, creating value that is not recorded in the GDP! Therefore they have been used to thinking of labour in non-monetary terms. Furthermore, the more unpaid labour women perform (in particular when they become mothers), the less paid they are in their professional lives: there is a «bigger wage gap between mothers and childless women than between young men and women». Brought up to think that they will work «for love» rather than money, most women are thus more reluctant to negotiate their pay. And jobs dominated by a female workforce (teaching, caring, etc.) rely on the notion that workers must be dedicated to their «mission» (the love of others) to the detriment of pay. A lot of women wrongly assume that love and pay are mutually exclusive.

What it means for managers and HR professionals

«Fairness as a principle doesn’t work if applied only in response to demand; it must be safeguarded and promoted even when its beneficiaries don’t realize what they are missing», write Babcock and Laschever. Actual pay equality is exceedingly difficult to achieve in companies, the authors insist, because «principles» often remain ineffective. Even the best-intentioned managers are not mind readers and will focus only on those employees who express demands. When they yield to the demands of their «star» employees, they can’t help but be happy that not all their employees are so demanding. The least-demanding employees just happen to be mostly women

« When people are not appropriately rewarded for their efforts and contributions, they cease to aim high. »

But neglecting the least demanding «star» employees could well be costlier: «it is in the nature of human motivation that when people are not appropriately rewarded for their efforts and contributions, they cease to aim high». Though difficult to measure precisely, workers’ turnover costs companies millions every year. Women who fail to ask and lose motivation for lack of proper reward tend to look elsewhere for reward. They will be more likely to consider outside offers than to ask for a raise. Also, the cost of de-motivation should include the cost of declining productivity. Pay transparency can be a powerful tool: one of the solutions is to make pay less negotiable and more transparent for everyone.

The authors of Why Women Don’t Ask explain that women are not really «bad» negotiators, but have a fundamentally different approach to negotiating that involves caring more for inclusion, shared interests, and long-term goals: they avoid direct confrontations where negotiations are binary win-or-lose scenarios but embrace negotiations that are “grow-the-pie” scenarios where everybody can win. The approach has proved far superior in more collaborative and inclusive environments. It also matches the current trend towards managerial change, open innovation, flatter organisations, and new more inclusive corporate models. Maybe women won’t need to learn to negotiate but rather will need to teach others to collaborate.


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Writing: Laëticia Vitaud

Illustration: Pablo Grand Mourcel

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