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Book Review: Women Don't Ask

Thursday, May 30, 2019  
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Book Review: Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation—and Positive Strategies for Change by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

In Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever delve deeply into gender differences in negotiation behavior and causes for these alternative approaches. They further elaborate on the short and long-term ramifications of this behavior as well as approaches to change. As an economics professor and professional writer, respectively, they explore this intricate, multifactorial subject drawing from their own peer-reviewed behavioral and social psychology studies of women and men, those completed by other leaders in related fields, and from interviews they have conducted with women in many arenas – from electrical engineers and investment bankers to graphic designers and literature professors. They use these quantitative and qualitative data in support of almost every argument they propose throughout Women Don't Ask. They demonstrate that the failure to negotiate early in their career leaves women substantially behind their male counterparts in terms of financial compensation and career mobility. Although this text is not specifically medical in nature, the importance of the read is easily apparent to anyone who picks up the book. In fact, this book came highly recommended by Dr. Melina Kibbe, Chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of North Carolina, during her session at the inaugural AWS Southeast Regional Conference last fall and led to the first Duke University School of Medicine AWS book club meeting.

Babcock and Laschever take the time to emphasize the early societal lessons and situational, culture-based pressures that impact behavior of girls from a very young age. Chronologically, this begins with social cues – the gender-specific toys and manner in which a young child plays, the way household chores are rewarded, and which parents she sees fulfilling certain roles throughout her childhood. Supplementing these foundational concepts obtained during childhood, they then present the abutting expectations of adult females. In the book, they remark that "negotiation falls more in line with social expectations for male behavior (being self-promoting and aggressive) than with those for female behavior (being other directed and selfless)." Therefore, women's attempts to negotiate are poorly received and oftentimes rejected as a stray from their societal role. Doing so endangers a woman's "likability," a key feature that enables her to be successful, accepted by her peers, and therefore more influential. With these structures in place, it is not a surprise that women not only fear negotiation, but avoid it altogether. An online study of Babcock and colleagues' attempted to quantify negotiation in a set of study participants: on average, the most recent and second most recent negotiations men had engaged in were two weeks ago and seven weeks ago as opposed to one month ago and six months ago in women.

In addition to social pressures, the diminished attempt to advocate may result because women tend to perceive negotiations as more confrontational than men, who simply see negotiation as a cyclic requirement of normal interaction. They introduce the concept of "negotiation jujitsu" coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury that allows one to not only calm the combative attitude of those with which one may be negotiating, but also meeting their anger and passion with understanding and contemplation toward mutual gain ("stepping to their side").

Despite emphasizing multiple aspects of male ease with negotiation, there are numerous qualities that make women naturally adept at negotiation and better at "negotiation jujitsu." Women are naturally more skilled at using "integrative tactics" as opposed to "competitive tactics," and these have caused many negotiation workshops to embrace and teach the more inherent group-oriented mindset of women as this may lead to superior, long-term group outcomes. For example, they report a negotiation study conducted by researchers Jennifer Halpern and Judi McLean Parks that had undergraduate participants negotiate with each other in same-sex pairs for the funding allocation towards a community playground. Half of the women compared to no men introduced information about the potential outcomes for a local elderly population. Also, women in same gender pairs were four times as likely to share personal information and did so much earlier than men. They theorize that because women consider the broader effects of their decisions and are more inclusive of all opinions, they are better able to achieve an outcome that is beneficial to both parties. Additionally, they introduce the recurring theme that women are more comfortable advocating for others than for themselves which is in conjunction with these more feminine negotiation qualities.

Before utilizing those tactics, Babcock and Laschever recommend a conceptual shift from viewing negotiation as a reactive spar to a conversation about reaching shared goals. Lastly, they do caution women to consider who their negotiation partner is. With another woman, a quickly established shared ground and approach is beneficial. However, when negotiating with men, this flexible, sincere attitude can be misperceived as inferior.

This text puts a name to the face of women's lived experience. If women are to steer their course towards financial and merit-based equality, they must identify the problem, propose solutions, and begin to implement change. I strongly recommend this book to all women and men seeking not only a better understanding of negotiation behavior, but also a guide to forward progress. Babcock and Laschever introduce multiple approaches to change including, but not limited to setting higher negotiation goals, belief in a positive outcome, acquiring a well-informed knowledge base of compensation or other outcomes of interest in their peer population, and "self-management" training to increase the amount of practice and therefore preparedness prior to official negotiations.


By Zoe Hinton, a medical student at Duke University