The Fear of Asking
Women and Negotiation in Academia
Women in academia face a tough balancing act. We must appear competent and intellectually critical, while simultaneously engendering a sense of warmth that puts others at ease. Fail to stand your ground and you run the risk of being walked over, but advocate your point too strongly and you may instead be considered abrasive and condescending. Unfortunately, these gendered expectations are not simply silent assessments but can (and do) have tangible effects on women’s career advancement. Women are consistently subjected to gender bias when being reviewed not only informally by students, but also in professional performance reviews. Understandably, navigating this balancing act exacerbates an already stress-inducing activity for many women (and men): negotiation.
Late in February, a group of NYCEP-affiliated women gathered at the Wenner-Gren headquarters in midtown Manhattan to discuss the book Women Don’t Ask, which delves into the social expectations that deter women from engaging in the very negotiations that are critical for their success. According to surveys, men initiate negotiations four times more often than women and tend to view these negotiations in a more positive light. This disparity in the willingness to negotiate may be one of the largest contributors to the gender wage gap. The decision not to negotiate can be extremely costly, contributing to a loss of over $360,000 in lifetime earning potential (given a starting salary of $25,000 as opposed to a negotiated starting salary of $30,000 with equivalent 3% yearly raises over a 32 year career).
So what gives? Why are women so hesitant to ask for what they want? Much of this reluctance likely stems from differences in the ways in which young boys and girls are socialized. One woman in the book describes how she was “taught from a very young age that asking for anything was like begging and that ‘good girls’ didn’t beg.” Gender ideas and expectations are frequently internalized and contribute to why women tend to engage in fewer negotiations and accept far less than their male counterparts.
Many of the women attending the book discussion described this same lack of entitlement interfering with their willingness to negotiate for their wants and needs. With these difficulties in mind, we discussed a few key negotiation strategies:
Choose to negotiate in the first place: This was the drive home message of the book and our discussion. All the negotiation strategies in the world will never help if you don't choose to negotiate in the first place. While this initial step may be intimidating, there is a high cost for avoiding it.
Know the appropriate terms of the negotiation: Research the salaries and benefits of those in similar positions. While you should start the negotiation at a higher level than you hope to attain, be wary of making unreasonable demands. Asking for unreasonably large lab space at a city university with severe space restrictions isn't overshooting, it simply makes you look uninformed.
Work to find a solution that is beneficial to all parties: Are there unmet needs that you can contribute to? Use this to help your negotiation.
Present a friendly, cooperative demeanor: Like it or not, general likability is an important factor regardless of gender, but does seem to be more important for women than men. The unfortunate reality is that women tend to be viewed more negatively than men when they act in an uncooperative manner. While it is important to stand your ground, do so in a friendly manner and you’ll get much farther than if you appear unwilling to compromise.
Negotiation is a crucial skill for both women and men to master. For women in academia, negotiation may prove to be an essential tool for navigating graduate school, post-docs, and the job market while balancing a multitude of responsibilities and concerns. For many of the women in the discussion, including myself, many of these concerns focused around when and how to start a family. This is a particularly thorny issue because the timing of starting a family often coincides with some of the most important years in a burgeoning academic’s career. In reality, many of these concerns are not easily resolved. All agreed that in order to move forward these concerns must not simply be viewed as women’s issues but rather family issues. To do this, women must gain the confidence to negotiate in both their professional and personal lives. As more women begin to successfully negotiate for themselves, we hope that the gendered expectations women face when engaging in these negotiations will begin to loosen.
Natalie O’Shea is a PhD student at CUNY/NYCEP concentrating on craniofacial growth and development