Women Don't Ask (Don't Tell)

Mar 28, 2008 • Karen

Right now I'm reading Women Don't Ask by Babcock and Laschever, the book they gave out to everyone at this year's Life After Scripps conference. Study after study and anecdote after anecdote about how much women are missing out in comparison to men--in salary, in career advances, in allocation of home duties--because they're adverse to negotiating. Basic learning point for everyone: when an employer gives you a salary offer, it's gonna be significantly lower than they can afford to give you. They *expect* you to bargain with them. So do it!

So the beginning part is a simple story: women don't negotiate; once they start negotiating, that erases most of the wage gap between them and men. Fair enough. But then the middle part (where I'm at now) gets tricky. The authors delve into where women's aversion to negotiating comes from--boys' chores being paid while girls' chores are done for "love," the subtle but insidious gender prejudices that pervade the raising of children, etc etc. But then we get to adulthood and--guess what!--these prejudices don't go away, despite how much the mostly-college-educated guinea pigs of academic psych studies would like to aver otherwise. The reason women don't negotiate--the reason so many successful women feel like "imposters" and shortchange themselves--isn't just that they were brought up that way once upon a time. It's because there's a real threat of consequences for Negotiating While Female! Women who negotiate like men are seen as pushy, called bitches, have their authority undermined and reputations trashed. Ever heard of Bully Broads? It's a program that companies send professional women to--on pain of firing--to adopt an unassuming demeanor, to premise their statements with a pile of self-disparaging qualifiers, even to tear up during meetings (Hillary's "emotional moment", anyone?). Jesus Christ, it's like a de-gay-ification program for the boardroom! While, sure, that'll definitely make businesswomen seem more "feminine," I find it unlikely it would make them any more successful. They'll just be ignored instead of loathed. Lovely.

It appears that, while finding the Bully Broads approach abhorrent, the book's authors advocate that women, instead of negotiating like men, learn to be assertive while still acting like women. They point to studies showing that for women, a "social" mode of speaking is the most persuasive--where you firmly assert your argument, but couch it in sweet, social rhetoric. They're probably right--this seems like it would be the best female strategy, from a practical point of view. But from an ideal perspective, it shouldn't be ignored that it's total bullshit that women have to walk a fragile assertive-feminine tightrope while men can just talk. (I'm sorry, was that un-feminine of me?)

Assuming I don't end up in a cardboard box, in three months or so I'll have a professional life of my very own to worry about. I'll have to deal with this issue. I'm not sure yet how. For one, not only am I not a particularly feminine person, I'm not an especially socially-adept person either, my gender notwithstanding. I don't know if I even *could* pull off that tightrope walk without explosively losing my temper or getting an ulcer.

Which makes me want to believe that this book doesn't apply to me. Other than dismal dating prospects* and once getting thrown out of an otherwise all-male AP US History assignment group**, my being female and assertive hasn't disadvantaged me in ways that I've noticed. I might be snarky, but most people won't call me a bitch (other than in the affectionate sense). If guys were (are?) intimidated by me, enough of them were able to put it aside enough to be my friend that I didn't really notice. Hell, I'm not quite sure if some of my male friends even process me as female to begin with. And who would want to be friends with an insecure cock anyway?

But I guess that's the difference. You can choose your friends, and I never had a problem with a teacher/professor who didn't like me speaking up in class. (What kind of prof doesn't want kids raising their hand? Most of them beg for it!) In the corporate world, however, you don't choose your co-workers or your boss. If one of them is a sexist pig and/or has tiny penis issues, you're still stuck with them 9-to-5. You still need to find a way to work with them. I guess Women Don't Ask's social persuasion method is that.

Well, I'll work on it. Until then, here's hoping for friendly, nerdy, enlightened co-workers?

* Sophomore year, before my confirmation class was confirmed, my pastor met with each us privately. During my conversation with him, for some reason he brought up my dating life--or rather, at the time, the utter lack thereof. "You know why guys aren't asking you out, right? They're intimidated, because you're smart. But once they get their act together, it's not going to matter anymore. So don't worry about it." Random, but he was right.

** Funny story. To this day I have no idea why one of the guys decided to kick me out (and the other two passively went along with it), other than bare-faced sexist insecurity. As a result, for the rest of the semester I essentially became my own group and stayed up nights doing the work of four people. When, at the end of the semester, I got the highest grade in the class on the midterm, it was possibly the sweetest moment of my academic career. Ha ha! Fuck you, asshole!