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Reader’s Review
John Baker

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide
By Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever
216pp. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Hardback Edition: (US) $24.95

Linda Babcock is the James Mellon Walton Professor of Economics at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and is a well-published specialist in negotiation and dispute resolution.

Sara Laschever is a prolific writer and editor with extensive experience in gender research. Ms. Laschever was a research associate and principal interviewer for Project Access, a Harvard University study of the effect of gender on the advancement of women in science. She holds a Master’s degree from Boston University.

Women Don’t Ask is a work with multiple interwoven themes. At its core, it is an important study of gender differences in negotiations. It is also a handbook for women offering concrete advice on how to improve their performance in negotiations.

Still further, it is a book about possibilities. Centering on traditional areas of women’s strengths in sharing information and building and preserving relationships, it concludes that women are potentially in a position to use these qualities with great effect in collaborative negotiating environments. Gender differences, therefore, include both hurdles to be overcome and promises for enhanced performance for women in negotiations.

Lastly, the reader will find the book presents a compelling case for the necessity of participation and skill in negotiations as an increasingly critical survival mechanism for both women and men in contemporary life. Although focusing primarily on women, the authors present an array of general statistics defining an environment in which all workers need to bargain repeatedly with a succession of employers for salaries and benefits.

The United States in this new millennium, measured by recent labor statistics cited by the authors, is a land far different than it was a few decades ago. Single employer careers are rapidly fading from the scene, a fact emphasized by the authors’ notation that 39 percent of U.S. workers changed jobs in a single year (May 2001-May 2002). Further reinforcing the transitory nature of modern employment is the finding that the average length of employee service with an employer has dropped to 3.5 years. At the same time, union membership has declined to a low of 13.5 percent of the U. S. work force. Traditional collective bargaining as a means of setting employee wages and benefits is therefore less of a factor today in the marketplace (pp. x-xi).

Narrowing their focus to concentrate on women, the authors note that women as a group comprise 76.8 percent of the U.S. work force outside the home while receiving only 73 percent of the pay of men in full time work and still struggling to climb the career ladder. The employment gender gap clearly remains a part of the U.S. environment, compounded for women by increasing economic pressure through high divorce rates and increasing numbers of births to single mothers (pp. xi-xii).

Whether or not these U.S. conditions are harbingers of similar shifts in traditional employment relations in other nations remains to be established. If they are, of course, the expansion of the global economy will make this work even more important across the world.

The central thesis of this book is that the enhancement of negotiating performance is essential to improving the quality of life for women. The corollary message for those many men who do not negotiate well is equally clear. Negotiation is a critical skill for both sexes. This work, of course, is focused on enhancing women’s skills.

Why don’t women negotiate well, because they do not ask, the authors assert. Using multiple studies and over 100 interviews with women and men in the U.S., Britain and Europe, the authors draw a portrait of gender differences in negotiations.

A study of starting salaries received by recently graduating students at Carnegie Mellon University is central to the authors’ conclusions. Starting salaries reported by the students showed that women received starting salaries averaging $4,000 below their male peers. Why?

Fifty-seven percent of the men negotiated their employment package vs. only seven percent of the women. This book explores the significant economic impacts of the decision by some graduates to negotiate vs. the decision of others not to negotiate at all. The results for those who negotiated, both women and men, produced an average gain of over $4,000 per year in starting salary, almost precisely the gender pay gap reported by the group itself. The conclusion, of course, is that the gender difference in rates of initiation of salary negotiations is directly correlated to the gap.

A variety of other research studies back up this assumption. The authors cite a study showing that men are two to three times as likely to initiate negotiations as women (p.3). Another study reports that twenty percent of women executives stated that they never negotiate at all (p. 113). Clearly, as the authors point out, the most important negotiating tactic is "choosing to negotiate at all" (p.6).

Since this is a book about women and negotiating, the authors move forward to explore why the socialization of women leads to an avoidance of negotiations or poorer performance when they participate in negotiations. For those forty-three percent of male Carnegie Mellon graduates who also did not negotiate their starting salaries, there is a clear and equally important warning, but their answer is not the subject of this book.

"Women … set lower targets and settle for less in their negotiations because they lack confidence in their ability to negotiate effectively," the authors tell us (p.140). The reasons for this gender difference are clearly spelled out in the book. It will be a revelation for many men, perhaps most, but my own informal sample of women found that many of them know most of the reasons already. What they do not know is how to change it.

Of particular interest, therefore, is the remedy Babcock and Laschever propose for this situation. The answer for improving the performance of women in negotiations, the authors assert, lies in self-management training. "… Increasing women’s feelings of control over the negotiation process eliminated the gender gap in performance" (p.114).

Readers will find an interesting and persuasive exploration of this research carefully linking to their earlier work. You will, of course, need to read the book to see why they believe this is so.

The authors conclude with a statement of belief that, freed from anxiety and other social scriptures that are present barriers, women can achieve extraordinary success as negotiators by capitalizing on their other gender based qualities. Women are listeners, sharers and relationship builders and these gender-based factors, the authors assert, position them for leadership in the new collaborative negotiations thrust, the authors assert.

There is much more here than this review can explore, including a chapter on negotiating at home as well as in the work place.

It is a well-researched, carefully analyzed and interesting book that is certain to be widely read, discussed and debated throughout the organizational world and is, therefore, a "must read" both women and men.

Highly recommended.

John D. Baker, Ph.D.

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