Ask for It: review of Babcock and Laschever's new book on negotiation for women

Ask for It by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever Women don’t ask.

That was the premise — and the title — of a book published in 2003 by Linda Babcock, James M. Walton Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, and successful writer and editor Sara Laschever.

Women Don’t Ask explored the uncomfortable truths about gender and negotiation and exposed the obstacles that keep women from negotiating effectively for themselves. While men seem to have no trouble negotiating and asking for what they need, women hesitate or fail to ask at all.

Social conditioning and cultural expectations are among the causes of these gendered differences. Tragically these differences produce well-documented economic costs for women, haunting them over the course of a lifetime. For example, according to the Women Don’t Ask web site, “By not negotiating a first salary, an individual 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.”

This book touched a raw nerve for the many women who read it; indeed, so overwhelming was the response to Women Don’t Ask that Babcock and Laschever went to work on a sequel.

The result is Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, a book filled with practical advice; real-world negotiation stories from the authors, the women who have contacted them as a result of their work, and Babcock’s students; and a detailed four-phase program with exercises for preparing for and succeeding in life’s negotiations.

Phase One teaches women to recognize that “Everything Is Negotiable”. As anyone knows, the toughest negotiation can be with yourself, and the authors help readers begin by asking questions of themselves to identify and clarify their professional and personal goals. Phase Two teaches readers how to “Lay the Groundwork”, reviewing the skills and concepts of basic negotiation strategy. Among the most important lessons? Information is power — and the authors explain how and where to get it to strengthen your bargaining position.

Phase Three, “Get Ready”, pushes women to aim high when it comes to negotiating. It covers cooperative bargaining; ascertaining your worth; using logrolling or trade-offs to get past jams and build value; and how to make the first offer. Best of all, it even comes equipped with a “Negotiation Gym” — a six-week program of increasingly difficult negotiation exercises that will help women build negotiation muscles and develop stamina and strength in preparation for tougher negotiation challenges. No one will ever kick sand in your face again.

Phase Four shows how women can “Put It All Together” — to practice in advance by role playing with a friend, to avoid making concessions prematurely, to create the right impression to influence your counterpart at the table, and, finally, to close the deal.

An appendix helpfully provides a detailed worksheet to help women prepare for negotiations, along with a link to the web site where readers can download a PDF version.

Ask for It recounts numerous stories of women facing negotiations at work and in their lives, across a range of industries and professions, which bring the lessons to memorable life. However, as convincing as these anecdotes may be, I would have welcomed more examples of negotiations in blue-collar settings, my one quibble with an otherwise excellent book.

What makes this book a must-read for men, too, and not just for women are its unpleasant revelations about the realities of hidden bias against women at the negotiation table. The authors exhort readers to take responsibility themselves for combating gender bias, not just that of others but particularly their own. They remind readers that all of us regardless of gender possess assumptions and unexamined beliefs about women in negotiation. They point to studies that indicate that while aggression earns men points at the negotiation table, it punishes women with backlash and disapproval. And, while the authors fiercely advocate for women at the negotiation table, the chapter on “Likability” with its insistence that women avoid aggressive tactics and “be nice” while bargaining, will no doubt leave some readers bristling. However, until the world changes how it views women in negotiation, it’s hard to argue with the studies the authors cite.

There is much to admire about this gutsy book with its commitment to helping women really succeed at negotiating. Even the title itself serves as a defiant call to action. Babcock and Laschever explain in the forward that the title represents a deliberate effort to reclaim a phrase weighted with negative meaning for women and instead assert it as an emblem of power:

For centuries the phrase “asking for it” has been used as an accusing finger to point at women. A woman who’d been sexually assault was “asking for it”. A woman who’d been the victim of spousal abuse must have provoked her partner — she “asked for it”.

Our goal is to help women ask for and get the things they — we — really want, to claim the phrase “asking for it” as our own and transform it into a dynamic tool for increasing our happiness and pursuing our dreams.

This is not simply a book about changing the way women negotiate. Instead, Babcock and Laschever have ambitiously set out to change women’s lives.

Any of us can join the revolution — all we have to do is ask.

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