The pseudo-science and pseudo-feminism of Women Don't Ask

“You should read this book,” a friend told me. “It says that women don’t make as much as men because they don’t negotiate their salaries.”

The book was Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, published in 2003. The notion that “women don’t make as much as men because they don’t negotiate their salaries”, it turns out, is a myth — a myth spun from the sloppy science and sexist assumptions of Women Don’t Ask.

Who has fallen for this myth? The mainstream media. Fortune Magazine in particular, which included Women Don’t Ask in a list of the 75 smartest books ever. Readers of the Ms. blog, who voted Women Don’t Ask into the top 100 feminist nonfiction. And a hell of a lot of well-meaning folks giving career advice to women.

It’s been more than 8 years since Women Don’t Ask came out. The myth that women get paid less because they don’t ask is still parading around the blogosphere and the airwaves. Recently the myth was dealt a blow by a large study of MBAs that found — surprise! — that women do ask. But it’s not dead yet.

It’s time to end the myth that women get paid less because they don’t ask — by exposing the pseudo-science and pseudo-feminism that started it.

Myth: As a rule, women don’t ask

Women don’t ask. They don’t ask for raises and promotions and better job opportunities. They don’t ask for recognition for the good work they do. They don’t ask for more help at home. In other words, women are much less likely than men to use negotiation to get what they want.

Right from those first sentences, Women Don’t Ask is making wild claims backed by flimsy evidence. The wild claims include:

  • As a rule, women don’t ask.
  • As a rule, when women do ask, they ask for less than men do.
  • There exists a socially acceptable way for women to ask for as much as men do.
  • Women need to be cured of their failure to ask.

The wildest claim of all is, paradoxically, the one the authors chose for the title of the book. The evidence that women don’t ask consists of: one unpublished survey of Carnegie Mellon graduates, one study of 74 Carnegie Mellon students playing Boggle for money, one internet survey with loaded questions, and a pile of anecdotes handpicked by authors on a mission to prove that women don’t ask.

(I’ll go over the evidence later in this article.)

The saddest thing about the title of Women Don’t Ask is that it undermines the authors’ goal to help women fare better in negotiations. When a woman “knows” that women negotiate poorly, that can cause her to negotiate poorly. The phenomenon is called stereotype threat (and it applies to men, too). The authors of Women Don’t Ask knew enough about stereotype threat to write 3 pages on it — but somehow that didn’t stop them from inventing a negative stereotype about women (as if there weren’t enough already) and making it the title of their book.

The cruelest thing about the title of Women Don’t Ask is that it blames women for gender inequality. The mainstream media have picked up on that blame: “The trouble with women” (The Economist), “Selfless women too backward in coming forward for promotion” (London Times), “Shy women lose thousands by not asking for promotion; failure to negotiate is an expensive trait” (Western Mail). The Pointy-Haired Boss and thousands of other bosses (male and female) now “know” that women don’t ask, so if a woman doesn’t get the raises and promotions she deserves, it must be her own fault.

The most insulting thing about the title of Women Don’t Ask is the person in the book who coins it. The phrase “women don’t ask” comes from the big mouth of a manager who’s explaining why he’s not sexist even though he favors men over equally qualified women.

Myth: The pay gap persists because women don’t ask

By neglecting to negotiate her starting salary for her first job, a woman may sacrifice over half a million dollars in lost earnings by the end of her career.” — tagline for Women Don’t Ask

Where does the number “half a million dollars” come from? Did someone conduct a survey and find out that women who negotiate their starting salary end up making half a million dollars more than women who don’t?

Nope. The number comes from a thought experiment. In other words, the authors just made it up.

The thought experiment goes like this: A man and woman get the same salary offer at age 22. The man negotiates a higher starting salary. Some math ensues, and by age 60 the man has earned (if “earn” is the word I want here) exactly $568,834 more than the woman.

The thought experiment takes place in an ideal world, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where “even if she produces the identical product as a man, a woman’s work is often regarded as inferior.” Where a man and a woman leading a group can follow exactly the same script, yet the group judges the man to have “more ability, skill, and intelligence”, and the woman to be “more emotional, bossy, and domineering”. Where a woman has to “bring along an arsenal of ‘friendly’, nonthreatening social mannerisms” and make an extra effort to “be cooperative and interested in the needs of others” in negotiations, or else risk being shunned as too aggressive. Where a boss can even punish a woman who dares to be aggressive by sending her to Bully Broads, a program that teaches women to “speak more slowly and softly, hesitate or stammer when presenting their ideas, use self-deprecating humor, and even allow themselves to cry at meetings”.

I know the authors know this, because every one of those examples comes from Women Don’t Ask. Yet somehow that didn’t stop them from presenting a meaningless thought experiment. Twice. (The second time, the man gets $2,120,731 more than the woman.)

Women Don’t Ask is careful not to make claims about the pay gap outright. It describes “encouraging women to speak up for what they deserve” and “a change in society’s attitudes toward women” as just two out of many solutions to the pay gap. Instead of making direct claims, it drops hints.

  • There’s the thought experiment I just mentioned.
  • There’s the reckless statement that study results have “persuaded some researchers that the gender gap in wages could be all but eliminated if men and women were to set comparable goals.” The authors cite exactly one study (Stevens, Bavetta, and Gist, 1993. Gender differences in the acquisition of salary negotiation skills.), and that study didn’t even look at real-life negotiations — participants negotiated with “trained confederates who used standardized guides to award salary increases”.
  • There’s this twisted logic (long-windedness omitted): “The impact of neglecting to negotiate… when starting a new job… is so substantial and difficult to overcome that some researchers who study… the wage gap… speculate that much of the disparity can be traced to differences in entering salaries rather than differences in raises.” This time, “some researchers” apparently means one researcher (Gerhart, 1990. Gender differences in current and starting salaries.) — and that researcher never argued that “neglecting to negotiate” is a major factor in the differences in entering salaries1.

A 2011 study of MBAs (summary here, results here, methodology here — Carter and Silva. The myth of the ideal worker.) found that women who ask are still “unlikely to earn as much or advance as far as their male colleagues”. The CEO of Catalyst, the nonprofit that funded the study, concludes, “The issue isn’t that women don’t ask. Maybe it’s that men don’t have to.”

A 2007 study by Women Don’t Ask author Linda Babcock, subtitled “Sometimes it does hurt to ask” (Bowles, Riley, Babcock. Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations.), found that women were less likely than men to negotiate the salary for a hypothetical job when the interviewer was male. But it also found that “men were significantly more inclined to work with nicer and less demanding women who accepted their compensation offers without comment”. Silly women, “neglecting” to negotiate!

There are times when it can really, really hurt to ask. For example:

  • When you’re a woman of color. Are you in a strong position to negotiate when you risk backlash because of your gender and your race? When a poll found that 25% of Americans openly admitted to having “strong negative attitudes” toward Chinese Americans? When a study found that a resume with a “white-sounding” name was 50% more likely get a callback than a resume with an “African-American-sounding” name?
  • When you’re a lesbian, bisexual, or trans woman. Are you in a strong position to negotiate when in most of the United States it’s perfectly legal for a private employer to fire or not hire you because of your sexual orientation or gender?
  • When decisions about hiring and compensation are made by the general public. How is a waitress supposed to negotiate for bigger tips (which, besides good service, depend on breast size, hair color, body size, age and race)? What does a woman have to put up with when she’s negotiating to get your vote?
  • When you’re an unskilled worker. Are you going to get that ambitious raise when there are a dozen people in line for your job?

“Grateful to be paid at all,” chides Women Don’t Ask, “many women accept what they are offered without negotiating.”

The arguments of Women Don’t Ask

In case you haven’t read Women Don’t Ask, now’s a good time to summarize its key points:

On the one hand, women are silly for not negotiating. On the other hand, women are socialized from childhood not to negotiate. On the other other hand, women can overcome their socialization and start negotiating. On the other other other hand, women face sexist backlash when they do negotiate. On the other other other other hand, women can sometimes reduce backlash by acting friendly and cooperative. On the other other other other other hand, society has to change before women will be truly free to negotiate. On some other body part that occasionally gets waved around, women actually do negotiate, but when this book says “negotiate” it usually means “negotiate in a competitive, macho manner”.

Women Don’t Ask is not a book that worries about contradicting itself. Or about handwaving.

The (so-called) evidence that women don’t ask

What evidence does Women Don’t Ask give to back up its titular claim that women are less likely than men to initiate negotiations? Exactly 3 studies:

  • A survey finding that, among students graduating from Carnegie Mellon with a master’s degree, 7% of women and 57% of men reported negotiating their salary instead of accepting their initial offer. (Babcock, 2002. Do graduate students negotiate their job offers? Unpublished report.)
  • An experiment in which Carnegie Mellon students were asked to play a game of Boggle and were told they would be paid between $3 and $10. At the end of the game, each student was offered $3. More male students than female students asked for more money. (Small, Babcock, and Gelfand, 2003. Why don’t women ask? Unpublished manuscript.) (Small, Babcock, Gelfand, and Gettman. 2007. Who goes to the bargaining table? The influence of gender and framing on the initiation of negotiation.)
  • An internet survey that asked respondents about the most recent negotiations they had initiated, the next negotiation they planned to initiate, and their attitudes toward negotiation. Women reported negotiating less often than men did. (Babcock, Gelfand, Small, and Stayn, 2002. Propensity to initiate negotiations: A new look at gender variation in negotiation behavior. Unpublished manuscript.) (Babcock, Gelfand, Small, and Stayn, 2006, Propensity to initiate negotiations: A new look at gender variation in negotiation behavior.)

What’s wrong with this evidence? Well…

Problem: Every study was co-authored by Women Don’t Ask author Linda Babcock. No one else had replicated or independently verified the results.

Problem: None of the studies had been published by the time Women Don’t Ask was released. Women Don’t Ask quotes the studies without any assurance that they had been peer reviewed, and without providing enough details to evaluate their methods.

Problem: The survey of master’s graduates has, as far as I know, never been published. (After searching for the unpublished studies, I e-mailed Babcock to ask for manuscripts. She was kind enough to point me to the publications for the two other studies, but neither one described the master’s graduates survey.)

Problem: The Boggle study really doesn’t tell us much. Women Don’t Ask gushes, “The results were striking — almost nine times as many male as female subjects asked for more money.” It even provides an endnote to help us put that in perspective: “Only 2.5 percent of the female subjects but 23 percent of the male subjects asked for more.” Reality check: the study had only 74 participants, and the difference was 8 men versus 1 woman. (Those numbers don’t count the unknown number of participants who asked about the process for determining payment, which wasn’t counted as “asking”.) Does a difference of 8 men versus 1 woman, out of 74 Carnegie Mellon students, asking for $7 more after doing a pointless task, really prove much about real-life negotiations?

Problem: The internet survey is a survey — the results totally depend on how you word the questions. In this survey, the respondents’ propensity to initiate negotiations was measured by asking about their “most recent negotiation”, their “second most recent negotiation”, and their “next negotiation”. Well, what do you mean by “negotiation”? When I asked a friend how he felt about negotiation, he didn’t tell me about all the times he’s made business deals and resolved conflicts — he talked about haggling over a washer and dryer on Craigslist. When Geri, a woman interviewed for Women Don’t Ask, was asked about negotiation, she initially said she was “not good at it”—but it turned out that she was; she had just associated the word “negotiation” with the competitive, macho flavor. Even the authors of Women Don’t Ask refer to the survey’s finding that “20 percent of women polled said they never negotiate at all” as “unlikely”! Yet they continue to quote the percentage and never admit that the survey’s flawed questions might be at fault.2

At best, these 3 studies hint that there are some situations in which women are less likely than men to initiate negotiations. But research conducted before and after the publication of Women Don’t Ask has also found situations with no gender difference.

  • A 1991 study (Gerhart and Rynes. Determinants and consequences of salary negotiations by male and female MBA graduates.) found that, among 205 MBA graduates, women were not less likely than men to negotiate their starting salaries (but women’s average payoff for negotiation was less). Mysteriously, Women Don’t Ask quotes statistics from this study but never mentions its key finding — that women do ask.
  • A 1982 survey of assistant professors (Riemer, Quarles, Temple, The success rate of personal salary negotiations: A further investigation of academic pay differentials by sex.) found that “male and female academicians have about the same tendency to attempt a salary negotiation both for beginning salaries and for salary increases”.
  • A 2003 survey of recent college graduates (O’Shea and Bush, Negotiation for starting salary: Antecedents and outcomes among recent college graduates.) found that “women were no less likely to engage in negotiation than men”.
  • A 2005 survey of recent graduates from the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon (described in Ask For It, the sequel to Women Don’t Ask) found that women and men were equally likely to negotiate their job offers. (Babcock explains this result by taking credit for it3.)
  • A 2011 study of MBAs (Carter and Silva. The myth of the ideal worker.) found that “women and men negotiated for a higher level position or greater compensation during the hiring process for their current job at equal rates”, and “women were more likely than men to ask for a variety of skill-building experiences and to proactively seek training opportunities”. (Women still got lower salaries than men.)

And then there’s Babcock’s own later work.

  • A 2007 study by Babcock and colleagues, subtitled “Sometimes it does hurt to ask” (Bowles, Riley, Babcock. 2007. Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations.) found that women didn’t mind negotiating with other women. For a hypothetical job interview, participants decided whether to negotiate salary and benefits. Women and men were equally likely to initiate negotiations with a female interviewer. (With a male interviewer, women were less likely than men were to negotiate.)

  • The publication that grew out of the Boggle study (Small, Babcock, Gelfand, and Gettman. 2007. Who goes to the bargaining table?) found that even if women aren’t comfortable “negotiating”, women do “ask”. “Framing situations as opportunities for negotiation is particularly intimidating to women, as this language is inconsistent with norms for politeness among low-power individuals, such as women”. While “men did not differentiate between negotiating and asking”, “women considered negotiation to be a great deal more intimidating than asking”. When the Boggle experiment was repeated with the twist that participants were given an opening to either “negotiate” or “ask” for more money, women were less likely than men to “negotiate” but equally likely to “ask”.

The evidence that men (sometimes) outperform women in negotiations

Women Don’t Ask wonders, “Why do men outperform women in negotiations?”

How do the authors of Women Don’t Ask know that men outperform women in negotiations? Did they go out and observe any negotiations in real life? No. Did they find any evidence that women in real-life salary negotiations ask for less? No.

Step 1: The authors of Women Don’t Ask looked at the body of research on gender and negotiation. Which is not very large, not very conclusive, and mostly consists of lab experiments on university students (especially MBAs).

Step 2: From the mixed results of that research, the authors picked out every result where men outperformed women. They presented the research as if it’s black and white. As if, by default, men outperform women in negotiations, and any other case is exceptional.

To give you an idea of how inconclusive the research actually is, here’s my summary of the studies that Women Don’t Ask used to “prove” that men outperform women in negotiations. (If you’re curious, here’s a more detailed summary.) The research looks at possible gender differences in how much participants ask for, expect to receive4, or actually receive in negotiations. The “Real life?” column shows whether the study involved a real-life situation or a controlled experiment. The “Female > Male”, “Female = Male”, “Female < Male” columns indicate whether the study supports the hypothesis that women fare better, the same, or worse than men in negotiations.

Citation Real life? Participants Female > Male Female = Male Female < Male
Sauser and York, 1978. Sex differences in job satisfaction: A re-examination. State government employees
Callahan-Levy and Messe, 1979. Sex differences in the allocation of pay. Undergraduates
1st-, 4th-, 7th, and 10th-grade students
Crosby, 1982. Relative deprivation and working women, 1978-79. Housewives and employed women and men
Major and Konar, 1984. An investigation of sex differences in pay expectations and their possible causes. Management students
Major, McFarlin, and Gagnon, 1984. Overworked and underpaid: on the nature of gender differences in personal entitlement. Undergraduates
Martin, 1989. Gender differences in salary expectations when current salary information is provided. Business students
Gerhart and Rynes, 1991. Determinants and consequences of salary negotiations by male and female MBA graduates. MBA students
Jackson, Gardner, and Sullivan, 1992. Explaining gender differences in self-pay expectations: Social comparison standards and perceptions of fair pay. College students
Bylsma and Major, 1992. Two routes to eliminating gender differences in personal entitlement: Social comparisons and performance evaluations. Undergraduates
Stevens, Bavetta, and Gist, 1993. Gender differences in the acquisition of salary negotiation skills: the role of goals, self-efficacy, and perceived control. MBA students
Kaman and Hartel, 1994. Gender differences in anticipated pay negotiation strategies and outcomes. Business students
Graham and Welbourne, 1999. Gainsharing and women’s and men’s relative pay satisfaction. Employees at two companies
Kray, Thompson, and Galinsky, 2001. Battle of the sexes: Stereotype confirmation and reactance in negotiations. MBA students
MBA students
MBA students
College students
Wade, 2002. Audience and advocacy: When gender norms become salient during salary requests. Unpublished manuscript. Undergraduates
Solnick, 2001. Gender differences in the ultimatum game. ?
Barron, 2003. Ask and you shall receive? Gender differences in negotiators’ beliefs about requests for a higher salary. MBA students
Riley, Babcock, and McGinn, 2003. Gender as a situational phenomenon in negotiation. MBA students
Adults recruited from a college campus
MBA students

How did Women Don’t Ask manage to paint this colorful body of research black and white?

First, Women Don’t Ask brazenly ignores many of the situations where women fared at least as well as men did in negotiations. This happens even when Linda Babcock writes about her own 2003 study with Riley and McGinn. Women Don’t Ask says the study found that “women produce worse results than those produced by men (on average 30 percent worse)” — but doesn’t mention another part of the study that found no gender difference in negotiation performance. Women Don’t Ask says the study “found male negotiators setting goals that were about 15 percent more aggressive than those of female negotiators in comparable circumstances” — but doesn’t mention another part of the study that found no gender difference in goals in cases where the negotiators reached agreement. (And when they didn’t reach agreement, it was because men set goals that were too aggressive).

Second, Women Don’t Ask spins the research as if men outperforming women in negotiations is the default situation, and anything else is exceptional. Take the chapter called “A Price Higher Than Rubies”5, which sets out to prove that women are satisfied with less. Most of the chapter alternates between providing evidence that women have low expectations and explaining why that might be. One piece of evidence is the 1984 study by Major, McFarlin, and Gagnon, which, Women Don’t Ask tells us, asked participants to decide how much to pay themselves after evaluating some college application materials, and found that men paid themselves more than women did. That’s true — but it’s not until the final section of the chapter (which tells us how “women can learn to avoid the trap of low expectations”) that Women Don’t Ask reveals the other half of the study. In the first half, participants had no idea how much others would pay themselves. In the second half, participants had that information — and the gender difference disappeared. Is the second half of the study (negotiating with complete information) any more exceptional than the first (negotiating in a vacuum)? The very structure of the chapter circularly reasons that women asking for less is the default situation.

Even in its bibliography, Women Don’t Ask manages to wring a little more color out of the research. For the study titled “Ask and you shall receive? Gender differences in negotiators’ beliefs about requests for a higher salary”, it omits the question mark.

In a 2010 talk, Hannah Riley Bowles, who collaborated with Linda Babcock and Kathleen McGinn in the 2003 study, wrote in her PowerPoint:

  • Yes, there is a somewhat inconsistent pattern favoring men in negotiation performance
  • But, the gender of the negotiator is a poor predictor of negotiation performance
  • Gender effects vary systematically across situations
    • Situational factors explain gender differences in negotiation outcomes

Even by 2002, Riley and McGinn had figured out that the question to ask is not: “Why do men outperform women in negotiations?” A better question is: “When does gender matter in negotiation?

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus

You’ve seen that Women Don’t Ask is pretty bad at science. It’s pretty bad at feminism, too — starting with the way it talks about gender.

Women Don’t Ask divides the world into two discrete groups: females and males. Never the twain shall meet. And never any genderqueer people shall be mentioned.

A recurring feature of Women Don’t Ask is anecdotes about people negotiating in real life. Most come from people interviewed for the book. Here’s how they break down by outcome and negotiator’s gender:

Unmitigated success (without prior training)36
Unmitigated success (with prior training)20
Finally decided to negotiate after suffering for a while110
Missed an opportunity by not negotiating210
Negotiated, but not well enough by someone’s standards60
Negotiated on behalf of someone else20

Is every man you know good at negotiating? Is almost every woman you know bad at negotiating? Or are these anecdotes perhaps a tad misleading?

Fun fact: The first anecdote in which a woman has unmitigated success in negotiating doesn’t come until page 128.

Remember that thought experiment where the man gets paid half a million dollars more because the woman “neglects” to negotiate her salary? Why a man? Are women so bad at negotiating that they can’t even do it in thought experiments?

And then there’s the way that Women Don’t Ask makes generalizations about women. Usually it pads generalizations with qualifiers (“most women”, “many women”, “women often”, “women are likely to”) — but when it’s time to crank out a sound byte, the qualifiers get dropped. “Women don’t ask.” “Women expect life to be fair.” “What leads women to undervalue the work they do and set their expectations so low?” “Women have learned to think of their incomes in terms of what they need rather than in terms of what their work is worth.” “This urge in women to avoid negotiation is so strong…” “Women’s strong urge to foster and protect relationships…” “Why do men outperform women in negotiations?”

When I quoted one of those generalizations to a friend, he joked, “Then I must be a woman.”

Even when Women Don’t Ask is trying to compliment women, it plays on gender stereotypes. In a chapter about “the female view that [negotiation] is a collaborative undertaking”, Women Don’t Ask summarizes one study this way: “A meta-analysis… found differences in the ways in which men and women behave in negotiations, with women more likely to behave cooperatively than men.” But that exaggerates what the study actually says: “The average weighted effect size indicated that women appear to behave more cooperatively in negotiations than men, but this difference is slight.” (The study goes on to say: “Women were significantly more competitive than men when competing against an opponent who pursued a ‘tit-for-tat’ bargaining strategy.”)

It’s true that a gender binary exists — in the sense that people who are perceived as male get male privilege, and other people don’t.

It’s false that a gender binary exists — in the way that people who identify as female, and people who identify as male, and people who identify as neither or both, actually behave. Women Don’t Ask zooms in so much on the differences between women-on-average and men-on-average that it loses sight of how much women-as-a-group and men-as-a-group overlap.

“Many women worry about their competence at negotiating.” So do many men. “Many women avoid negotiating even in situations in which they know that negotiation is appropriate and expected.” So do many men. “Instead of looking for ways to improve a difficult situation, women often assume that they are ‘stuck’ with their circumstances.” Men often do that, too.

Are you bad at negotiating? Well, then you must be a woman.

Men ask too much

Women Don’t Ask observes that women sometimes ask for less than men do. Women Don’t Ask then imposes the value judgment that women ask for too little. Why not that men ask too much?

Heather the pastor

Women Don’t Ask tells the story of two pastors, Heather and an anonymous man whom I’ll call Scrooge McPastor. Heather worked at a poor urban church. Scrooge McPastor had just transferred from a rich church, where he had a “generous” salary, to a poor church in Heather’s district. He wanted the move, but he didn’t want the pay cut. So Scrooge McPastor approached the council on which Heather served and asked for a raise, to be funded by the council’s secret discretionary fund — a fund so secret that Heather had never heard of it. To Heather’s disappointment, the council said yes.

According to Women Don’t Ask, the moral of the story is that Heather should have asked for a raise. “Women expect life to be fair, and despite often dramatic evidence to the contrary, many of them persist in believing that it will be.” Even when someone is helping himself to the funds of impoverished churches, Women Don’t Ask “persists in believing” that competitive, macho negotiation is appropriate.

Women Don’t Ask is too busy lecturing everyone to ask Heather what outcome she would have preferred. In a quote of her outrage (or as Women Don’t Ask calls it, “fatalistic dismay”), Heather is concerned that other churches besides Scrooge McPastor’s didn’t get a fair chance to apply for the funding. She says nothing about wanting the raise for herself. She apparently doesn’t want to copy Scrooge McPastor’s behavior, either — she calls it “finagling”.

A delegation of women grad students

Then there’s the story that inspired Women Don’t Ask. “A delegation of women grad students” came to Linda Babcock’s office (she was the director of the Ph.D. program) to find out why so many male grad students got to teach classes of their own, while most of the female grad students were stuck as lowly teaching assistants. Babcock went to the associate dean, who handled teaching assignments.

The associate dean said: “Oh, dear! I’ve been giving teaching assignments to any qualified person who asks, but I guess not everyone knew they could ask. I wonder how many good teachers our department has missed out on because of this policy. I’ll e-mail the department and revise the student handbook to make sure everyone knows about this opportunity. Linda, let’s meet with some of the grad students and find out why some of the men thought to ask and none of the women did. There’s probably more going on here than meets the eye.”

Just kidding!

The associate dean actually said: “More men ask. The women just don’t ask.”

From time to time, Women Don’t Ask makes little speeches about how reluctance to negotiate is not a personal failing that women need to fix; what’s really needed is social change. But when it comes down to cases, Women Don’t Ask has a narrow definition of “social change”. It never calls the associate dean on his shortsighted incompetence. (On the contrary, his quote becomes the title of the book.) It never calls out Heather’s fellow clergy for distributing church money under the table. The closest Women Don’t Ask ever comes to criticizing a macho negotiator is to remark that one manager — who left a position vacant for over a year, ignoring his employee’s indirect requests to be transferred to that area, until finally she asked for it directly — that perhaps this manager was not “truly astute”.

Women Don’t Ask doesn’t seem to be fully committed to social change in the form of women receiving equal treatment in the workplace, and businesspeople recognizing the value of feminine negotiation tactics. The only kind of social change the authors consistently care about is women being allowed to negotiate like manly men.6

Speaking of narrow definitions, Women Don’t Ask doesn’t give the “delegation of women grad students” credit for asking Babcock to investigate the inequality in teaching assignments. Those women didn’t ask. They “complained”.

Women are deviant

According to Women Don’t Ask, women ask too seldom. Women expect too little. Women concede too much and too soon. Women are too insecure and too concerned about maintaining relationships. When are men ever “too” anything?

Women Don’t Ask describes some studies finding that women on average were satisfied with lower pay than men were. It then imposes the value judgment that women ask too little. Women have a “low sense of entitlement”, a “depressed sense of entitlement”, an “impaired sense of entitlement”. When people have a “low sense of entitlement”, they “suffer” from it, but when they have “extremely high levels of entitlement”, they simply “display” it. Men are normal, women are deviant.

Women Don’t Ask quotes from an interview with Lory, a theater production manager. In Lory’s job, “my needs are group needs”. Lory says about asking for things, “If it’s something that’s just for me, only for me, then I go back to, ‘do I really need it?’ More, it’s really, ‘how does it affect people around me?’”. The cooperative system seems to work great for Lory — the book describes her as “self-confident” and “very successful” in “a competitive and demanding field”. But, to the authors, Lory’s attitudes are “noteworthy” — they’re like “a 70-year-old grandmother who came of age in the 1950s” — they’re an example of succumbing to “the pressure to put the needs of others first”. Never mind Lory’s success — she’s deviated from the male norm.

Women can’t manage

Women Don’t Ask relates the opinion of an interviewee named Louise: “In a well-managed company, [Louise] believes, senior management should recognize everyone’s individual contributions and give them what they’re worth. ‘They ought to just deal with those inequities,’ she said. ‘And it shouldn’t be always on the employee to ask.’”

To the authors, this shows that “even enormously accomplished and successful women often retain a strong wish for the rewards of their success to be dispensed by others.”

But Louise is a “high-ranking power company executive”. She’s the one dispensing rewards. The authors of Women Don’t Ask apparently don’t feel that Louise is qualified to determine how her own company should be run — at least, not if her opinion deviates from the male norm.

Privileged people ask too much

Picture this: A man walks into a job interview…

Did you, by any chance, picture a man who’s White? Able-bodied? Thin? Cisgendered? Well, then you pictured just the man I’m talking about. Our hero, Default Person. (By the way, he’s also straight.)

Default Person walks into a job interview. Before Default Person ever reaches the pay negotiation — before he even opens his mouth — he has an advantage over other candidates who are not White, not able-bodied, not thin, not cisgendered, or not male. If the interviewer has been paying any attention to Western culture, he or she unconsciouly knows that Default Person is the bestest — and starts making unconscious assumptions, Title VII be damned:

This guy got into college based on his own merits, not some affirmative action program. Or if he skipped college, it’s because he’s brilliant. He can stay late at the office. He won’t always be taking time off for family stuff. By nature he’s confident, competitive, and rational, not emotional or needy. He’s self-disciplined. He can drive. His body, clothing, speech, music, and personal life won’t make anyone here uncomfortable. We won’t have to watch what we say around him. He could be management material. Maybe he plays golf.

Default Person gets these assumptions for free (even if they’re not true). Everyone else has to prove some of them.

Women Don’t Ask — which is always chiding women for missing opportunities — missed a golden opportunity to talk about how class, race, disability, body shape, sexual orientation, and gender together influence a person’s freedom to negotiate. The book makes the same mistake as mainstream feminism: it targets middle-class Default Women.

How do I know? It’s clear that the book targets the middle class (maybe the upper class, too) because most of the people interviewed in the book have middle-class jobs, most of the research focuses on university-educated people (especially MBAs), and most references to compensation are “salaries”, not “wages”. It’s clear that the book targets Default Women because Women Don’t Ask is virtually silent about race — guess what color is the woman on the cover — and totally silent about disability, body shape, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Why, because they’re irrelevant? No, because they seem irrelevant to Default Women who have the privilege of not thinking about those things when they wonder why they get paid less than their colleagues.

Women Don’t Ask mentions race exactly once. It describes a study in which actors (Black and White, female and male) went to car dealerships posing as buyers. All actors followed the same script and asked to buy the same model of car. The initial offers made by the salesperson, as well as the amounts the salesperson knocked off the price when the actors haggled, were best for White male actors and worst for Black male actors. The initial and final offers were significantly higher for Black women compared to White men, but not significantly different for White women compared to White men. Why is this result so inconsequential that Women Don’t Ask doesn’t even bother to summarize it accurately? (It says that “salespeople quoted higher prices to women than to men” — even though the highest prices of all were quoted to Black men.) Why is race so tangential that Women Don’t Ask never speaks of it again?

Women Don’t Ask (and, more transparently, a later publication — Babcock, Gelfand, Small, and Stayn, 2006. Propensity to initiate negotiations.) uses a 3-part model to explain gender differences in propensity to negotiate:

  1. recognition of opportunities — how much stuff are you aware that people can get?
  2. entitlement — how much of that stuff do you feel you deserve?
  3. apprehension — how nervous do you feel about asking for stuff you deserve?

To rephrase that in the language of privilege:

  1. insider information — how many opportunities are you aware of because you belong to a privileged group?
  2. entitlement — how much stuff are you accustomed to getting because you belong to a privileged group?
  3. anticipated backlash — if you ask for stuff, are people unlikely penalize you because you belong to a privileged group?

Let’s apply that model to an anecdote from Women Don’t Ask. The anecdote is about one of those wonderful, enterprising men-who-ask whom women are supposed to swoon over emulate. Mike was a student at a private secondary school in New England in the 1960s. The Big Away Game was coming up, and Mike wanted to organize transportation for his fellow students. So (the book doesn’t tell us where he got the idea) Mike went to the local train company and asked if he could rent a train. “The railway was happy to oblige for a reasonable price.” Mike was showered with praise and, despite his mediocre grades, his school “made sure his name was on the Yale list”.

Women Don’t Ask tries to pass this story off as typical — just one of “numerous tales of assuming that opportunity abounds — and reaping big rewards” from the men interviewed for the book. The authors insinuate that the key factor in Mike’s success was his assumption that opportunity abounds.

Let’s deconstruct:

  1. Mike had insider information because of his social class and gender. Here’s a guy who goes to a high school so elite that it has a Yale list. (What does that even mean?) Here’s a guy who thinks of a train and its crew as something he can afford. Thanks to his privilege, Mike knows whom to talk to about renting a train and how to state his request.
  2. Mike felt entitled to rent a train (even for a purpose as trivial as a football game) because he and his classmates had the money.
  3. Mike anticipated no backlash. He was used to people saying yes, or at least saying no politely. (Would a railroad company in 1960s New England have said yes to anyone other than a Default Man?)

It’s a bait-and-switch to hold up Mike’s story as an example for women negotiating their salaries. When Mike asked to rent the train, he wasn’t risking anything worse than a polite “no”. Whether he’d gotten the train or not, he would have “reaped big rewards” in life.

The prevailing strategy of Women Don’t Ask is to split the world into a winning team (men) and a losing team (women), and give the losers a pep talk. (“C’mon, ladies, give it 110 percent. Is that pay gap hurting you? Walk it off, walk if off.”)

A more enlightened strategy would recognize that everyone is privileged in some ways and disprivileged in others. (Even a Default Man in America can be disprivileged — if he’s poor, or Muslim, or even just unattractive.) A more enlightened book wouldn’t just tell us how to help ourselves when we’re disprivileged in negotiations. It would tell us how to stop exploiting people we have privileges over. It would be honest about the limits of what disprivileged individuals can do, as individuals, to help themselves. It wouldn’t accuse us of “failing” or “neglecting” if we choose not to negotiate like a manly Default Man. It would remind us that a culture where everyone negotiates the same way is boring, unproductive, and bad for business.

Readers ask too little

In marketing material on the Women Don’t Ask website, presented in the form of a fake interview, someone named Q asks: “Is this an anti-feminist book? Doesn’t it blame women for their own problems?”

A replies: “On the contrary, this book, like most feminist works, looks at structural problems in our society that prevent women from being as free as men to choose who they want to be, what they want to do, and how they want to behave. And it suggests ways that women, businesses, and society as a whole can change to make our culture more open and equitable—a culture in which men and women can enjoy and take advantage of the same opportunities.”

A is not the only one claiming that Women Don’t Ask is feminist. Reviewers drooled over the book’s potential to help women. The Ms. blog included it in their top 100 feminist nonfiction. In my field, computer science, Women Don’t Ask is recommended left and right — Geek Feminism, Grace Hopper Celebration, Anita Borg Institute. Valerie Aurora of LinuxChix even became so enraptured by the book that she ran a scholarship to help women buy it.

In a sense, everything A says is true. Parts of Women Don’t Ask wax very feminist. The authors genuinely want to help women get the money and power they deserve. They want women to be free.

But they go about it the wrong way — with shoddy science and sexist assumptions.

It’s time for feminists — and I mean anyone, of any gender, who believes in gender equality — to stop plugging Women Don’t Ask. Stop buying this book. Stop parroting the half-baked notion that women need to be cured of their failure to negotiate7.

Start spreading the word: women do ask.


Thanks to @smokris for his patronage of the art of polemic.

  1. In the only mention of salary negotiation in the 29-page paper — and this is under “future research”, so we know he’s just tossing out ideas — Gerhart writes: “Some research also suggests that women may have lower pay expectations than men for the same inputs (Major, McFarlin, & Gagnin, 1984). If true, women may be less willing than men to bargain for a higher starting salary. Of course, if as some evidence indicates (Olian et al., forthcoming), discrimination against women in hiring does exist, temporary acceptance of lower starting salaries by women could be viewed as a rational strategy to gain access to the firm and an opportunity to demonstrate their true productivity (Aigner & Cain, 1977; Cain, 1986).” ↩︎

  2. Aspiring researchers take note: Linda Babcock uses a classic Ph.D. trick to deflect the criticism that survey respondents might have had multiple interpretations of the word “negotiation”. Now, an amateur might panic. This flaw might invalidate my whole theory! I’d better do a follow-up study to investigate! Not the seasoned researcher. She calmly creates an endnote, acknowledges the flaw as a possibility, and uses logical reasoning (swifter and more sure than a follow-up study) to explain why her work is impervious to the flaw. Babcock makes such a beautiful example that I will quote her: “Another interpretation is possible. Men may not really be doing more negotiating than women; men and women may behave in the same ways but label or describe their behavior differently. That is, what a man calls a negotiation, a woman calls something else. This interpretation seems less plausible because it suggests that men and women define a common word in our language differently. But even if it is true, it still has implications for behavior. If women aren’t calling their interactions negotiations and men are, women may not be viewing those encounters as strategically and instrumentally as men do and may therefore gain less from them in significant ways.” ↩︎

  3. From Ask For It: “In July of 2005, three years after Linda [Babcock] launched this campaign [apparently meaning Women Don’t Ask and her related teaching and publicity], the Heinz School’s career services office turned over the survey data from students who’d graduated that May. Linda was jubilant. In the 2005 graduating class, 68 percent of the women and 65 percent of the men (a difference with no statistical significance) had negotiated their job offers. Not only that, those who negotiated did so very successfully: The women were able to increase their starting salaries by 14 percent; the men increased theirs by 16 percent (again no statistical difference).” ↩︎

  4. When women expect to receive lower salaries than men do, is that a self-fulfilling prophecy or just a rational prediction? Women Don’t Ask assumes the former. ↩︎

  5. The chapter title refers to a poem from the book of Proverbs that praises the ideal housewife. ↩︎

  6. Is it any surprise that Linda Babcock founded an organization with the incredibly broad name of Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society (PROGRESS) and the incredibly narrow mission “to teach women and girls the value of negotiation”↩︎

  7. Hurray for Team Valkyrie FTW, Melissa J. Anderson of The Glass Hammer, and some commenters on Geek Feminism, who are way ahead of me. ↩︎