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I.M.O.W. Team

Can "Nice Girls" Negotiate?

Businesswomen May Pay a Price for Speaking Up

Though most businesses claim to be Equal Opportunity Employers and women now make up half of the American workforce, is there really such a thing as equality in the workplace? When negotiating salaries or asking for a raise, what should women expect? Whitney Johnson is a founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen's investment firm. Listen to a podcast interview with Johnson about this essay, called "When Women Ask For Raises," on the Harvard Business Review Web site.

I was just a year out of college, and interviewing for a sales assistant position at PaineWebber.

One of my prospective bosses offered me $24,000. I countered with $27,000. He pulled out his calculator like a gun from a holster, punched in $3,000, divided it by 52, and in a clipped tone responded, "That's only $57 more a week, why do you care?"

To which I responded, "Precisely."

PaineWebber subsequently agreed to $27k. I took the job. Two years hence my bosses championed my hop, one that rarely happens in the investment banking world, from the admin to a professional track.

And I tucked away in my brain the belief that "nice girls can ask." Nearly two decades later, I recognize that my experience with this employer was anomalous.

'Nice girls can't ask' has been tended to be more accurate.

At the end of 2004, I'd had a great year at Merrill Lynch. From stock-picking to commission dollars to peer reviews, I was top of the class. Surely I was on solid ground when I conveyed to management that I expected to be a top 10% earner. Instead, I was told I was out-of-line. And yep, you guessed it, my pay wasn't in the top 10%--in fact, it wasn't even in the top quartile.

Which is why I wasn't at all surprised when I read a couple of years later about an academic study in a Washington Post article headlined "Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling." The study's subtitle: "Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask."

Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who did ask for more, the perception being that women who asked were "less nice." As one of the researchers, Hannah Riley Bowles, told the Post:

"What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not," Bowles said. "They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not."

My experience and this study indicate there can be a social cost when women negotiate. A cost that is consistent with the findings of psychiatrist Anna Fels: when we are giving something to someone else, we are feminine; when we are asking for something from someone, we are not.

When men ask for something, they are being proactive; when women ask, they are being pushy. It's a double standard to be sure, but it's also a double bind - if we don't ask, we don't get; if we do ask, we may be shunned.

It is, however, a relief to realize that our professional rebuffs may be due to societal norms, not because of us per se. Perhaps, too, if we are reluctant to ask for what we want, we aren't being wimpy, but calculating the social cost of asking.

This predicament notwithstanding, my advice for women remains: Ask for what you want. You may not get it, but you won't leave empty-handed. At the very least, you'll get information. You put an ask on the table, an opening request; your employer or partners or board counters with a bid. If the ask and the bid are close, you know something. If they aren't close, will the bidders negotiate? You'll know something else.

In the case of PaineWebber, had they not hit the bid, I was prepared to walk. I knew what my drop-dead price was. Merrill Lynch didn't hit the bid, but I got information. When the time was right, I left.

I want to be a "nice girl"--to be attuned to others' needs. But I also need to ask for what I want. Being true to myself, and to all women, depends on it.

In the short run, it may be quite difficult; but in the long run, what have we got to lose?

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