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Women Don’t Talk: Why speaking up can be one of the best things you’ll ever do professionally, and how to do it

“In all the time I was a manager there [a start-up firm], I didn’t have a single woman come up to me and ask for a pay raise. And I would have been happy to reward those who had been great employees, but while I didn’t have to worry about men knocking on my door to ask for a salary increase, not one woman spoke up.”-Leah Wheelan, manager

Last summer, I had attended a brief straight-from-the-gut talk with Dartmouth Professor Charles Wheelan and his wife, Leah, where the topic of women and speaking up came into the bubble of the conversation. Leah Wheelan had worked at Bain Consulting for a few years before initiating a few start-up ventures and then translating those into managerial careers. Dressed in a black chiffon shirt with hair pulled into a relaxed bun, she looked more like the headmistress of a sixth-form ballet school than an exemplar of corporate America.
I had no doubt heard the mantra “women don’t ask” before, but never had numbers to back it up. But authors of Women Don’t Ask Linda Babcock and Sarah Laschever do.

According to Women Don’t Ask, girls and women who don’t negotiate and speak up for what they want in life suffer the impacts in more places than just the cubicle. Lacking the barter gene will also put ladies in a soft spot when it comes to purchasing cars, houses, and anything without a fixed price. And yes, women also need to learn to ask for what they want and compromise when it comes to relationships (and eventually marriages) and enjoying healthy sexual relationships.
I’m 20 years old and don’t have a problem raising my hand to speak up in class. How does this affect me?
Whether you like it or not, the statistics on workplace and private life inequities speak for themselves. You, as an HC reader who has no doubt been a devourer of intelligent journalism throughout the course of your education, may have been well-schooled in the facts. They follow like this: 

  • Women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns (2010 figure) This is despite the fact that in 2000, 76.8 percent of women aged 25 to 54 worked outside the home. This is also despite the fact that since the latest recession, the American workforce now counts more women than men among its ranks.
  • Men initiate negotiations about four times as often as women.
  • When asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating, men picked “winning a ballgame” and a “wrestling match”, while women picked “going to the dentist”. 
  • 20 percent of adult women (22 million women) say they never negotiate at all, even though they often recognize negotiation as appropriate and even necessary. 
  • By not negotiating a first salary, a woman stands to lose more than $500,000 by age 60 – and men are more than four times as likely as women to negotiate a first salary. And women who consistently negotiate their salaries increase their earnings at least $1 million more during their careers than women who don’t.
  • And here’s a smack-down for any gals out there who want to start up their own businesses – women own about 40 percent of all businesses in the US but receive only 2.3 percent of the available equity capital needed for growth. That means companies started by men receive the other 97.7 percent. Ouch.

Still think this isn’t you? Here are some more quotes from the trenches, and what you can do now to overcome your fear of negotiating.
“When I go into a negotiation…I think about maintaining that relationship before I think about my own [needs].” (Becky, journalist) This is the typical I-just-want-to-make-friends-and-not-step-on-anyone’s-toes gal. In a classroom setting, a corporate boardroom, or an editorial newsroom, one of the quickest ways to gain respect with people whose relationships are worth maintaining is by respectfully speaking your mind and finding some middle ground.
“I’m better at asking for other people, and I can be really direct…but not so much for myself.” (Helena, advertising executive) The good Samaritan…for everyone else but herself. Nice guys (and gals) may not always finish last, but they’re not often the first in the rat pack race to the finish line. Tailor your actions based on the situation, the timing, and the location – and don’t forget that there are times to be selfless…and also times to be forthrightly, rationally, self-serving.
“I think it’s up to the people that you work for…to identify [superior work] and keep current with what’s in the industry.” (Christine, investment banker) Don’t count on this AT ALL. Think about it: on any given day, your professor or your supervisor has dozens of concerns weighing on his or her mind just like any other individual…including you. They’re worried about the fact that their kids might not make the mark for honor student in the sixth grade awards shortlist and about the 95+ papers they still need to grade after hosting a barbecue. You can’t expect your professor (or your boss, for that matter) or anyone besides your mother and a select few close family and friends to have you and your comings on the brain as a natural instinct. If you have questions about grading standards, or your recent performance in a class, you need to posit yourself as someone who has reasonable bounds for a conversation starter. It’s not up to them to think of you – it’s up to you to make them think twice about you.

“I have a hard time putting a monetary figure on the work that I do.” (Lory, theater production manager) Head to Salary.com, Ed2010 Salary Report, or whatever other internet platform will give you a relatively unbiased metric on what you’re making compared to the industry (or company) average. Also be sure to sit down with a career counselor from school to gauge what you should roughly be making as a new grad and those salary projections as time goes on. Annual and lifetime earnings are a big deal and negotiating is not about being pushy or being frigidly aggressive – it’s just simply good business.
So what can you do today to develop negotiation skills that will carry you far into your career?
Understand that your undergraduate years are the training ground for any workplace negotiation you’ll be doing in the future. It’s crucial to develop those skills now rather than to slowly figure them out in the real world, so start looking out for scenarios where there is room to ask for more. Do you think your last paper or exam may have been mis-graded? Speak up (politely and discreetly) by asking for your professor’s point of view first and then have a discussion about what could be done differently next time, and what might be corrected this time. This isn’t about being a grade grubber. If you think there were honest mistakes or differences in opinion as to the quality of your work, it’s crucial to at least sit down during office hours to ask what might be changed next time.

Clubs and extracurriculars – always ask and be proactive about getting more deeply involved with your passions. If you missed being elected to a certain seat in the student government or to a position in your volunteer organization, speak with someone you know within the organization about positioning yourself to re-enter the process successfully the next time around.
Internships, jobs, and applications – when applying for jobs and internships, make sure you ask clearly about the benefits and salaries you’ll be garnering with each opportunity. It pays to apply to a variety of positions, especially so you can compare and negotiate starting salaries more easily that way. 

Betty Jin is currently a junior at Dartmouth College. Originally hailing from the high rises of Shanghai, she grew up mainly in the 'burbs of Boston before trekking about 110 miles north to attend the College on the Hill. Majoring in English with a soft spot for Woolf and Wharton, she would like to at some point in her career pursue journalism and new media ventures. In the meantime, she enjoys drinking dark coffee with one shot of expresso, watching period dramas and listening to director reels, and going on crack of dawn jogs. She hopes to someday bike the Silk Road, touch the snows of Kilimanjaro before they melt, and write about it all in a collection of travel essays.
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