Women still find it hard to say, 'Let's make a deal'

Sooner or later, everyone who owns a car faces a moment when an unseen voice whispers three costly little words: "Time to trade."

If you're a man, you may relish the prospect of wandering through auto showrooms and negotiating with a salesperson for the best price. You see it as a challenge, perhaps even a sport. But if you're a woman, well, you'd probably rather do just about anything else. Who needs all that anxiety?

Do these sound like tired gender stereotypes, outmoded in the 21st century? Linda Babcock has sobering news: They're still true. As an economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she has studied men's and women's approaches to negotiating.

Despite the progress women have made professionally in recent decades, most women still find it hard to speak up for themselves when it comes to raises, promotions, and better job opportunities. Professor Babcock sums up the problem in three other little words: Women don't ask.

In a book by that title, "Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide," to be published later this month by Princeton University Press, Babcock and coauthor Sara Laschever explain the ways in which women come up short when they must negotiate.

Consider their failure to ask for a higher starting salary. That can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income during a career. "Women are likely to price themselves too low," Babcock says in a phone interview. That produces another hidden penalty - reduced retirement benefits, since Social Security and pensions are calculated on earnings.

She urges women to read trade journals that publish salaries, and to talk with others in their professional networks. That includes getting men's perspectives. "If women are paid less, and they talk only to women [about salaries], they aren't asking for enough," she says.

Women's aversion to negotiating also means they often spend more for cars than men do, according to a study Babcock cites. Some women would rather pay full price than bargain. Others accept a salesperson's first offer.

An unwillingness to negotiate creates inequalities at home as well. Because many women are reluctant to ask their families for help around the house, they sacrifice their leisure time.

Babcock traces some of women's failure to value themselves highly enough to the way parents rear children. They give boys independent chores such as washing the car or mowing the lawn, and often pay them. They assign girls supervised domestic tasks - setting the table, washing dishes, caring for siblings - but don't pay them.

"Women are conditioned from a very young age how they're supposed to act," Babcock says.

For women just beginning their careers, she sees another challenge. Many believe the gender gap has been closed on a variety of fronts. They may be unaware that disparities still exist. Changing these attitudes, Babcock notes, will "take a lot of effort on behalf of a lot of people, thinking about how to teach girls that they can ask for, and that they deserve, what they want."

Who knows? Someday, some of us might even stride confidently into a corporate boardroom or an auto showroom, no longer dreading the prospect of negotiating the fairest deal we can.

Talk about progress!

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