Monday, July 17, 2006

about a boy

I was talking to a female economist in my program recently. I told her that the rent on my apartment was going up by $50. "Did you try to negotiate that?" she asked. I did not. "Why?" she asked. I had no response. "You can always ask," she said. I had no response. I had no response because she was right.

I read Women Don't Ask yesterday. The general thesis of the book is that an important source of gender inequality in income and wealth is that women are much more averse to negotiation than men generally and don't ask for things when they should. I picked up the book after a friend talked to me about her having read it. This friend, like the female economist, is saddled with the supposedly sucker-spawning-second-x-chromosome, and yet is not still someone I really imagine being the type to leave all kinds of opportunities on the table because of an unwillingness to inquire on behalf of her interests.

I'm not disputing whether, in the aggregate, women are less likely to ask for things in "negotiation" opportunities than men are. Like virtually the whole of the literature on behavioral/psychological gender differences, I'm sure the female and male averages can even differ substantially while there remains overlap--meaning that there are women who aer very good about asking for things they want and men who are very bad at it.

I know for a fact this second category exists, because I am an exemplar of it. In the nomenclature of Women Don't Ask, I negotiate like a girl. An extremely girly girl, in fact.

The book has all kinds of compelling anecdotes of women not asking in situations where they could ask. Many of these resonated with me all the way down to my allegedly androgen-soaked bones. "Me, exactly!" I wrote maybe some two dozen times in the margin, even though the protagonist of the anecdote was a woman.

Much of the book was also about why women don't ask, most of which relies on socialization arguments that focus heavily on upbringing and other earlier life experiences. As you can imagine, these parts didn't resonate with me quite so much, and I mostly skimmed them. All fine, perhaps, just not relevant for me, since I can't point around to "society's messages" about proper behavior and blame for them having trained me to be passive in ways often contrary to my well-being. Instead, I get to wonder how I manage to be as bad as I am about asking for things despite the best efforts of countless agents of gender-order-reproduction to make me meeklessly manly.

I would love to be able to blame this on how the only board game Sister D would play with me during one developmentally-vital period of my youth was Barbie, Queen of the Prom, but I just don't think that is quite it. For parts having to do with asking-in-academia, I think there are ways that it's related to Imposter Complex Issues that are, in turn, related to my coming from a substantially lower economic and educational background than most of those now classified as peers/colleagues, but I think that line of explanation only goes so far, if it goes anywhere at all.

In any case, it's become increasingly clear to me for some time that not asking in cases where I could ask has cost me enormously professionally, personally-financially (as in the rent example above), and personally-personally. I'm not going to get into details here, obviously. It's more than a little painful to start doing the math just on the financial front alone. Less for the lost money per se than the sense of stupidity and suckerdom that goes along with it. And especially when you know that it's one thing to recognize that you have this needless costly aversion to being proactive about your situation and asking for things, but another to actually make improvements in dealing with it. Ugh.

One strategy of the book for prodding women to be more assertive is to argue that they are letting down the whole sisterhood when they don't. Meanwhile, I guess, at least I am doing my part to promote equality every time I'm a doormat. World, your muddy heels are welcome upon my spine.


Rhymes With Scrabble said...

Speaking of Sister D, I was going to suggest it was a birth order effect, but then I realized even my single anecdote didn't actually support that. While my mother reports that as a baby/toddler my sister Hannah never had to do anything except scream and Sophie and I would go running to try to figure out what it was she wanted, Hannah is certainly not the type to fail to ask. One could argue that the screaming was a form of "asking," I suppose.

I don't usually like asking for things, which in some cases I associate with a desire to be as self-sufficient as possible, but other times I can't really justify it like that. Perhaps it is my girly side.

Anonymous said...

My recent encounter with sister "A" left me feeling totally spineless and stupid. I inquired as to her current employment and how she got there and she told me, "I asked."

Sister A rocks. I don't even roll.


jeremy said...

RWS: I'm not much of a believer in birth order effects.

PJ: Sister A does rock.

Rhymes With Scrabble said...

Yes, I know. I was sort of making a joke.

Sarahliz said...

I personally wouldn't write off the effects of class background altogether. Do working class men negotiate? Do rural men? My instinct is that having a knack for negotiating requires believing you have the right to do so, a sense of entitlement. My hypothesis would be that men from lower economic groups have lss of this sense of entitlement than more privileged men. I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to back that up, but it is a possible explanation.

I will add that I'm not entirely convinced that being a negotiator is something to which to aspire. I mean sure asking for things is a good thing but only to a point. I've seen so many students (male and female) who think that just asking insistently for an A should get them one that I'm pretty convinced that there is a line that one absolutely should not cross in terms of that sense of entitlement.

Tonya said...

Two comments. First, I am so going to read that book. Second, becoming a lawyer helps considerably in the asking for stuff realm. Although it is much easier to be an advocate for someone else rather than oneself, the skills you acquire in legal practice are transferable to daily life.

jeremy said...

Sarahliz: WDA talks about "sense of entitlement" and how women generally have a lower sense than men.

Tonya: I would totally recommend the book for you and law school for me.

carly said...

"I don't usually like asking for things, which in some cases I associate with a desire to be as self-sufficient as possible, but other times I can't really justify it like that. Perhaps it is my girly side. "

RWS, you took the words right out of my mouth. That sentence describes my exact reaction to this post.c

A+ said...

Me three.

Sister A said...

I had a very wise friend tell me once, that asking is necessary because you never know who's going to hear it. If the problem you're experiencing cannot be remedied alone, then it needs to be voiced. Once it's "out there," anyone can pick up on it and lend a to speak. Jeremy, look how many people responded to your "fan" needs. Had you kept quiet, you may have become another heat stroke victim. I'm only good at asking because I have a big mouth and I'm usually curious. Have a great day!