Asking for it

It goes without saying, There’s a massive set of skills that you need to succeed and to move forward in science that you’ll never learn in a classroom. Many of them you’re not even going to learn at the bench. High on the list are the arts of marketing (or self-promotion) and negotiation. These represent a major hurdle for many early career scientists. Women particularly seem to struggle with these things.

I recently attended a talk given by Sara Laschever, a writer and editor who co-authored (with Carnegie-Mellon economist Laura Babcock) Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It .* It was an interesting talk about how and why women (don’t) negotiate, with Laschever relating many anecdotes from business and academia that drove home the message in many of the statistics. Laschever made the point that it’s not that women are incapable of negotiation, that we are somehow “broken”. In fact, she commented, that women are fantastic negotiators–when it comes to asking on the behalf of others, advocacy for clients, friends, family… The problem is when we have to ask for something for ourselves.

Why do you (not) ask?

Most of us want to believe that life is like school, that there are specific expectations that when met earn us some reward. We want to hold onto this altruistic view that if we just keep our heads down and work hard and do awesome science, it will be enough to get us a job, a promotion, a grant… Sometimes we have the dream that life is like this:

Photo from an annual meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society

But… you know.

Based on Laschever’s and Babcock’s surveys, for many women, the very idea of negotiation is uncomfortable. It certainly is for me. I hate asking for anything. I would rather take the extra time to figure out how to do or get something on my own. Part of it is feeling like I’m inconveniencing someone, part fear of being told no, part worry of being perceived as selfish. Personally one of my biggest hurdles is self-promotion–an essential element of negotiation and a successful career, in general.  Although there are exceptions on both sides, this seems to be a particular vulnerability for women. Part socialization, part personality, we tend to feel that advancement should be based on past, not potential, performance. We believe that if we have done something worthy of reward, then it will be awarded… and if we’re not rewarded, then we must not be doing enough or we’re doing something wrong. To an extent, that may be quite true.

On average, men negotiate on their own behalf four times as often as women. They will go through more rounds of negotiation, and when they negotiate, they ask for more. During childhood, Laschever argued, “Boys learn that they work for money, whereas girls learn that they work for love–which we all know doesn’t pay nearly as well.” Laschever further attests that, in general, women feel that they should be evaluated and rewarded on the basis of their previous work; we feel that if we have to ask for it, then surely we don’t deserve it. She related anecdotes of a few female professors who became very upset when their male colleagues with similar track records were promoted before them or paid much more. Once the indignation of these women pushed them to speak to department chairs or deans about why this disparity existed, the answer was simply, “They asked.”

Obviously there are many factors that come into play–politics of the department or lab, qualifications, performance, funds–but one of them may be as simple as asking. Most often the worst that can happen is being told no. Failing to ask will hurt us more in the long run. Despite strides to diversity and gender equality in the workplace, gender disparities in compensation and promotion** remain, and they’re often sizable. From the salary standpoint, grad students and postdocs in the sciences are insulated from gender disparity, since departments or institutes typically have a fixed salary (often linked to NIH or NSF paylines) for all trainees. However, salary isn’t the only thing negotiable item. For faculty, it might be lab space, start-up funds, protected time. For trainees, it might be conferences, mentoring or teaching opportunities, authorship, and so on. Even small things can confer advantages–whether by adding a line to your CV that pushes you past the next guy or gal in line or establishing connections with key players in your field.

Before you ask

Just as we develop a plan of action for a project or experiment, we have to plan for negotiations as well. Laschever provided several items to consider in preparation for negotiating; though geared toward negotiating a job or promotion, some things are more broadly applicable.

  • Don’t accept the status quo; assume everything is negotiable. As highlighted above, negotiations are not always about titles or money. In today’s economy, what may be equally (or more) important are intangibles, things like leadership or management opportunities, lab/office space, options to stop the tenure clock… The list goes on.
  • Establish your priorities. You have a long list of things you can negotiate. Before you walk into a negotiation, figure out what matters most to you and what things you would be willing to concede.
  • Do your research. To know whether you’re asking too much or too little, you have to know where other people have landed. For some items such as salary, the web provides excellent resources, but you shouldn’t depend only on that. Use your networks–personal, society, and alumni. Laschever stressed the importance of talking to men because (just in case you missed it) women usually ask for less and hence have a skewed perception of how much one can/should ask for.
  • Know your sources of negotiating power. In other words, understand what you’re bringing to the table, which goes back to the self-promotion thing. It may be certain skills, traits, reputation… Just know what it is. If you’re negotiating a job you currently hold, hiring and/or training someone to replace you is usually much more expensive than retaining you. In many places, Laschever suggested, being a woman is becoming a strong source of negotiating power.
  • Understand the dynamics and adapt. Sometimes this may be as simple as re-stating your request or what you have heard in a different way, to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Other times this means changing your approach. Whether negotiating with men or other women, women are often considered more persuasive when are viewed as affable. Does it suck that women have to act differently than men to get what they want? Sure. But sometimes you have to work within the system to get ahead.
  • Build your negotiation skills, starting with the small stuff. Laschever and Babcock propose a “negotiation gym” plan in Ask for It. Essentially the idea is to get more comfortable with negotiating by asking for small things, outside the workplace, like haggling with a salesperson over a price. Laschever highlighted that in two-career households, women are still doing 2/3 to 3/4 of work around the home–chores, childcare, etc.–so the home is an excellent place to start negotiating.
  • Learn that you can survive hearing “No”. The fear of hearing this tiny word is keeps many people from asking in the first place. As you become more comfortable with the idea of negotiating, ask for something you know you’ll never get so that you can learn that those two-letters really won’t destroy you.

Now go forth and negotiate!

    * Some of that statistics from the talk (and books) are listed on these sites. I have not read either of these books, but if you have, leave a comment about what you thought of the book(s).
    ** Yes, I cherry-picked two pieces of interest. To locate and link all the data out there would take more time than I have.
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    11 Responses to Asking for it

    1. Dr Becca says:

      Really great post, bb! And congrats on your new WP home!

      I love the idea of a negotiation gym. I think the thing that would most keep me from negotiating is the fear of looking presumptuous or having overestimated my self-worth in front of a superior, and the embarrassment that comes with all of that. This of course would be much less embarrassing if I were dealing with the flea market dude I’ll never see again.

      • biochembelle says:

        Fear of coming off as presumptuous or having an exaggerated opinion of oneself was a major point of discussion during the talk. Probably half the questions or more revolved around this. Based on studies, most women actually don’t ask for far more than they’re worth; in fact, we tend to ask and expect less than male counterparts. Laschever really harped on the research aspect as a way of getting past this fear.

        I also really like the idea of the negotiation gym. The whole idea is to build your confidence and to become accustomed to asking for things that you might let slide. On many occasions, Paramed will ask for something when we’re out–a newer pack of tobacco, a discount, an extra whatever–and it usually bugs me. It actually happened the same evening I was telling him about Laschever’s talk. His response was, “Why does it bother you when I ask for things? The worst that can happen is they say no.” I still haven’t gotten there. Laschever also suggested having an accountabilibuddy–OK, so she used the phrase “accountability partner”–to “train” with you.

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    3. I’ve heard a lot about this recently from one of my friends who heard her speak and has been practicing asking for things. I need to read the book, I think, before I truly try to embrace it. It sounds promising, though.

      And welcome to wordpress, yay!!

    4. I read the book earlier this year and thought it was fantastic. Cool that you got to see one of the authors speak.

    5. biochembelle says:

      CE, thanks for the feedback on the book. I’m definitely putting it on my list!

      RocketScientista, thanks for stopping by and welcoming me 🙂

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