Can Nice Girls Ask?

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I was just a year out of college, and interviewing for a sales assistant position at PaineWebber.

One of my prospective bosses offered me $24,000.  I countered with $27,000.  He pulled out his calculator like a gun from a holster, punched in $3,000, divided it by 52, and in a clipped tone responded, “That's only $57 more a week, why do you care?”

To which I responded, “Precisely”.

PaineWebber subsequently agreed to $27k. I took the job.  Two years hence my bosses championed my hop, one that rarely happens in the investment banking world, from the admin to a professional track.

And I tucked away in my brain the belief  — ‘nice girls can ask'.

Little girl dollar
Source:  istockphoto

Nearly two decades later, I recognize that my experience with this employer was anomalous.

‘Nice girls can't ask' has tended to more true.

For example, at the end of 2004, I'd had a great year at Merrill Lynch.  From stock-picking to commission dollars to peer reviews, I was top of the class.  Surely I was on solid ground when I conveyed to management that I expected to be a top 10% earner.  Instead I was told I was out-of-line.  And yep, you guessed it, my pay wasn't in the top 10% — it wasn't even top quartile.

Which is why I wasn't at all surprised when I recently read about an academic study in a Washington Post article Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling, the findings of which are summarized below.

Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more, the perception being that women who asked for more were ‘less nice'.  ‘What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not.  ‘They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum.'

Source:  istockphoto

Use your words.  Ask for what you want.  My experience and this study indicate there can be a social cost when women negotiate.  A cost that is consistent with the findings of Cornell professor Anna Fels' findings:  when we are giving something to someone else, we are feminine; when we are asking for something from someone, we are not.

It's a double bind.

I don't have an answer.  But, I do have some thoughts:

  1. I was relieved to read about this study, to recognize that my professional rebuff was due to societal norms; it wasn't about me per se.
  2. If we are reluctant to ask for what we want, maybe we aren't being wimpy, but calculating the social cost of asking.
  3. I am both surprised, but mostly appreciative, of my bosses at PaineWebber who were willing to negotiate with me — and still wanted to work with me.I want, I need to, be nice — to be attuned to others' needs.

I want to, I need to, ask for what I want.
Being my self depends on it.

What are your thoughts?

For more on my work experiences, you can read:

  1. HBR's How Star Women Build Portable Skills
  2. The Hazards of Getting in the Game
  3. Valuing What Women Do
  4. Sucker Punch
  5. Telling My Wall Street Story
  6. The Allure of the Pom-Pom

For further reading, you may enjoy Nice Girls Don't Get Raises which offers up another explanation for the gender pay gap, as well Gender Stereotypes and the Double Binds for Women in Leadership, which explains ‘professional women are generally considered ill-equipped to handle jobs traditionally held by men AND we typically induce disapproval and social penalties when we are successful in these positions.

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