I must have tried on my senior prom dress—a satin sheath with a v-neckline—at least a dozen times before the big event. I was 17, but I remember thinking I looked at least 22. A few days later, my high school boyfriend stopped me in our school’s hallway and asked my preference in flowers. “To be honest, flowers kind of make me sad because they die so quickly,” I replied immediately. As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt guilty and foolish. “Why would I talk to him about dead flowers?” I thought. He did not respond; he just smiled and left for his next class.
The evening of prom, I watched from the kitchen window as my boyfriend approached our driveway. I quickly met him outside, trying to avoid an audience composed of my parents and siblings. As he exited his car, I immediately noticed his boutonniere, which was crafted of felt flowers. He presented me with a matching wrist corsage, also made of felt flowers. Then he grinned and said, “These flowers will not make you sad.”
Now, to be candid, my lush bouquet of fresh peonies at my Louisiana wedding remains my favorite. But when I reflect on that moment in South Dakota, the kind of moment that has even more impact during one’s formative years, I remember how important it is, especially for women, to ask for what we want—without fear or guilt over how it might be received.
While my 1996 memory is an example from my personal life, I can think of instances throughout my professional career when I should have voiced my concerns or expressed my preferences. For example, when I was offered one of my first newspaper jobs, I accepted the position and salary without question, even though I knew the responsibilities were not consistent with the salary I was being offered. I did not want to risk offending my new boss.
In talking about workplace negotiations, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of “Women Don’t Ask,” explain how childhood play affects professional interactions. While their findings are not absolute truths for every woman or every man, it is helpful to understand why women and men often view negotiations through different lenses. It begins early. Female children often play collaboratively and treasure relationships; when females disagree, they often end games to preserve relationships, choosing harmony over conflict. Boys play in larger groups and play competitively, focusing on hierarchy.
How does childhood play affect the workplace? The authors describe a study in which they asked men and women to ascribe metaphors to workplace negotiation. Men selected phrases such as “winning a ballgame,” while women chose metaphors such as “going to the dentist.” The authors found other disparities: women viewed salaries as price tags, i.e., non-negotiable, while men viewed salaries as starting points for debate. Men equated negotiation with excitement. Women often hesitated to negotiate; they worried they might harm their relationships with the people they were asking.
Overall, women tend to be more “communal,” and less concerned with their desires and more focused on the well-being of others. Additionally, they find it much easier to advocate for others. The authors also described a study that observed the differences between how men and women negotiated salaries for other people versus how they negotiated for themselves. Women, while advocating for others, made offers that were significantly higher than the offers they made while speaking for themselves. Conversely, men negotiated for themselves at higher rates than what they advocated for others.
The wage gap between men and women is startling, but women can participate in narrowing this gap. Babcock and Laschever concluded that 85 percent of males assumed that they should determine their value and negotiate to ensure the company paid them what they were worth. Only 17 percent of the women surveyed made that assumption. Women tend to believe their hard work and dedication will be eventually recognized and that they can avoid awkward negotiations.
So, how can professional women address this disparity and overcome it? Before a negotiation, she should identify scenarios that may induce stress, and plan how to address them. She should prioritize ideal outcomes; acknowledge deal-breakers; and research her market worth. She should also evaluate perceived barriers and determine if they are real or imagined. This will empower her to feel a greater sense of control during the actual mediation. She should enter each negotiation with the other person’s goals in mind, ask questions during the discussion, and tailor her answers accordingly. Lastly, she should practice these techniques with a trusted friend.
When I struggle with voicing my concerns, I remind myself of what a male colleague told me years ago while I was working in higher education and doubting my expertise: “You’re here because you can do the job. We want to know what you think, so tell us.” I think that is essential advice for all women. When we express our ideas with confidence, we create more effective work environments. And, we feel better about ourselves in the process.
Originally published in Bayou Life Magazine.