BOOKS: Negotiation has become a survival skill for women

The key theory is that women do not ask for what they want, thus inhibiting their careers. But, says Carolyn McCall, this book fails to tell them what action to take

by Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Newspapers Ltd and a non-executive director of New Look Group
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Women Don't Ask

Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Princeton University Press £16.95

MT price £13.50 (see panel, p28)

I love to negotiate. So when asked to review this book, which seems to have been received positively in the US if the back cover is to be believed, I thought why not? Anything about negotiation and how to get better at it is bound to be riveting. The premise of this book is that in the midst of so much rapid-fire professional and personal change for women, negotiation is no longer an option: it has become a basic survival skill.

Babcock and Laschever use a range of statistics to demonstrate that since the 1990s women's progress up the ranks has stagnated. One of the purposes of their book therefore is to find new solutions for women to ensure that progress continues.

Their key theory is that women don't ask for what they want and this disadvantages them significantly in their careers. Worse, this applies just as much to young women in their twenties and thirties, where you might have expected a shift. This results not just in a lack of career progression, but also in a yawning pay gap between women and men in executive roles.

The authors then claim to shine a spotlight on the barriers that prevent women from asking for what they want and suggest ways for those barriers to be removed. So far, so good - any book that helps women navigate the choppy waters of business life and allows more women in the workplace must be a good thing.

Unfortunately, this one does not do that. It takes a highly academic approach and focuses on the reasons women don't ask - the 'fact' that gender schemas are set at a very young age, so that girls learn that the world is controlled by men; that women undervalue the work they do, so their own sense of entitlement is set at a low level; that men are 'self-oriented' and women are 'other-oriented', leading them to seek to protect relationships, whereas men find negotiation exciting and fun and don't worry about relationships; that women see things as fixed, whereas men see opportunity abounding; that women will be punished for exceeding the bounds of acceptable behaviour, and are seen to be aggressive and difficult if they ask for what they want; that women follow rules and structures, and don't realise what could be changed by asking, whereas men are conditioned not to play by rules; the perception among women that 'nice girls don't ask' and so on.

They draw on a vast range of research to make these points and use real-life experiences of men and women as evidence for these conclusions.

I found myself impatient with the analysis, hoping with each chapter to find the recommendations that would help working women move the issues forward. Then suddenly on page 108 (the book is only 180 pages long), there is a recommendation or three - women should work for themselves, change the male-dominated culture from within or choose their company wisely. They call these smart choices; I call them obvious. You'd have to talk to working women for only five minutes to get the same suggestions.

Then, back to pages and pages of analysis.

This was my problem with the book: far too much research telling me how bad things are for women; far too many stereotypical views of the strengths of women and how these do not always fit the corporate culture; far too many cliches about how women have to change the game. Nowhere near enough suggestions about what women can do to help themselves.

And when they do recommend action - for example, 'negotiation jujitsu', a great phrase but what they mean is using 'feminine skills' to disarm the tough guys; or 'training intervention', known in layman's terms as getting some help with negotiation skills; or using market information and external data as preparation for the negotiation - I ended up either frustrated with how the authors often unintentionally reinforce stereotypes, or furious that all they suggested are obvious and well-documented negotiation tactics.

Did I learn anything new from this book? I am going to share this with you because if you are anything like me, you will not have time to wade through a dense, academic text that does not engage or entertain in order to find out what you should do to negotiate effectively. First, it made me realise that your first negotiation at your very first job interview is your most important because it sets your salary package for decades.

If you do not get this right, you will be seriously out of pocket for a very long time. I will tell young women this whenever I get the chance.

And, second, it is hard to come away feeling that there isn't a problem - that women's lives may have changed, but both our thinking (and men's thinking about women) has not. A few men I work with saw me with this book and their reaction was always the same - 'that looks scary', they said. If only that had been true.

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