Why Don’t Moms Negotiate Better?


I’m often demoralized to overhear this criticism about working women: we don’t negotiate. People who deliver this judgment, in my experience, tend to be human beings with limited experience being female: accomplished men in white collar, managerial positions, who shrug off women’s lack of negotiating skills as if absolutely anyone with self-esteem is born knowing how to ask for their due.

However, the reality in our culture is that many men (particularly non-minority men) are taught, almost from the day they are born, to ask and demand and justify and pout and compete and threaten and freeze others out until they get exactly what they want. Which, in my experience, is sometimes more than their work ethic or intelligence or skills actually merit vs. their peers.

Women, on the other hand, are taught that to be feminine means to yield and placate, to work hard behind the curtain but not on center stage, to be soft and quiet and non-threatening and amenable and sweet and helpful in every way. Starting when we are two. Which naturally, makes it hard for us, as adults, to play hardball at work when jockeying for a raise, a promotion, a plum assignment, a corner office. It also makes it a challenge to barter at home to split housework and childcare equally…which, in a vicious cycle, makes it more difficult to succeed at work as well. We are, through no fault of our own, often stalled by trepidation from negotiating effectively.

Fortunately, more and more mothers today are teaching our daughters what we learned (or never learned) the hard way.

Case in point:

I recently heard from a good friend from high school. I’ve known her since we were 13. Even then she was opinionated, intelligent, and fair, not to mention gorgeous. She played a mean soccer game and graduated at the top of our private school, went on to be Phi Beta Kappa in college, and earned a masters degree in international affairs from a well-known university. She is a senior member of the investment team at an asset management firm – in one of the most male-dominated, lucrative fields on the planet. In asset management, when you look just at the investors — the highest paid employees — and exclude lower compensated legal, compliance, human resources, secretarial and support staff, only 7% are women.

In fact, there are so few women at my friend’s level, that if I told you one more detail about her, you’d know exactly who she was. So, let’s just stipulate that her career path has always been within a traditionally male industry, and she’s done very, very well for herself professionally. Personally, she’s happy too: she’s married to a kind, smart, supportive man whose career does not supersede hers. They have three children they have raised together. The family recently moved from coast to coast for her job. In sum, she could have written a very nice chapter for Sheryl Sandburg’s epistle, Lean In.

In other words, the last woman in America I’d expect to shy away from negotiating. If this woman has trouble asking for more, it shows that the system is most definitely rigged.

Here’s the story she told me:

“I asked for a raise a week ago. Only the second time in my entire career I have asked for a raise. I got a big NO.

I went home dejected, gearing up to wait my turn until the end of the year.

My 15-year-old daughter (for whom ‘leaning in’ is not even a thought, she is all in, all the time) told me to go back. She told me to say I deserved it. To tell my bosses that they were wrong.

‘Mom,’ she said. ‘You do a great job. They don’t want to lose you. You deserve it. You need to make them see that.’

She was telling me that if I believed in my own worth, others would too.

So I did!

And it worked!

I took the advice of someone who just got her learner’s permit, but whose knowledge of her own self eclipses mine, and now she is so proud of me.

When I told her, she said, ‘That’s the bomb, Mom! Fist bump for women!! ‘ and immediately told her best friend. I am so proud of her too.”

Her story illustrates one part that the media buzz over Lean In sometimes misses: the importance of recognizing how little help women get learning to negotiate, how we can develop negotiating strategies and tactics that work for us, and the importance of encouraging other women at key moments.

I have a few friends who tell me to ask for more when I’m negotiating. Every time. And I tell them the same. Even when it feels risky, and anti-social, and against everything our mothers and teachers and coaches and mentors taught us about how to navigate a world dominated by men.

So let’s stop criticizing women for not negotiating well, for not “leaning in” quite aggressively enough. It’s more productive to recognize how difficult it is for women to negotiate, and to encourage women to develop new ways to ask for what we are worth. We all need cheerleading, pushing, and extra support – even if it comes from a 15-year-old.



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