Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Do Women Ask for What They Need? A Surprising Finding

Against the back drop of three waves of the feminist movement, both men and women might affirm that women ask for their needs.  On a more personal note, if you ask married men the same question, too many might say “They never stop asking.” And if you are a mother or have ever faced a mother trying to get what she needs for her child – you know enough to step out of the way! 

It comes then as a surprise that research across age and venue finds that as compared with men, women don’t ask for what they need, often settle for what is offered and tend not to think about negotiating on their own behalf.

Prompted by her personal realization in the corporate world that her male counterparts had received promotions because they had asked, Linda Babcock, together with Sara Laschever researched the differences between men and women in negotiating for what they need. The findings reported in their book,Women Don’t Ask are relevant in understanding women, men and meeting needs in and out of the workplace. 

A brief glimpse underscores the differences:

  • In a study of starting salaries for masters level students, the salaries were $4,000 higher on average for males than females. Only 7% of the females compared with 57% of the males had asked for more money.
  • In a study of young adults asked to play four rounds of Boggle TM for compensation, both men and women were matched for how well they played and then offered $3.00. Despite complaints by both men and women, nine times as many men as women asked for more money.
  • In interviews conducted with over 100 male and females of varying ages either working or full time mothers, respondents were asked to identify their last negotiation. Women reported major events from several months past like buying a car, while the majority of men described a number of informal events within the prior week like driving the kids, teaming plans at work etc. Overall, women did not think about or utilize negotiation as part of the fabric of their life as much as men.

Women Asking for their Needs – A Confusing Picture

What makes the question of women asking for their needs a difficult one and the findings somewhat surprising is a mix of gender, role and cultural dynamics.

Women Do Ask – For Others

The best of what women do as mothers, partners and nest builders is ask for others. A close look even at the arguments between partners often reveals the woman asking in behalf of a child, a parent, a friend or family member.

  • “I just can’t have a party and not invite everyone in his class – how can you do that?”
  • “We have to let them stay here – They’re your parents.”

Collecting Stars

Women often work very hard at “collecting stars ” i.e being deserving of what they want so that somehow others will give them what they need without ever having to ask. One woman who worked non-stop at home and at school was bewildered that she never seemed to get her turn – it  never occurred to her to ask.

Connections vs. Needs

Women will adjust their behavior and needs to protect personal connections.

  • “If you really want to go to the game instead of the party- we will go to the game.”
  • “I really hadn’t planned on retiring but….”

The upside to being empathic to the needs of others is the power that it brings to connections- both in the work situation and in the home relationships. The downside of women not expressing their needs at the risk of disrupting connections is that some women never find out they are entitled to have both needs and connections. Some never find out that they won’t stop being loved if they ask for themselves.  Some are left feeling quite deprived.

 Cultural Shaping

Author, Linda Babcock underscores that from the time women are little girls they are really not encouraged to ask or aggressively pursue their needs in the same way as boys. As a result they themselves feel less entitled to ask and fear being identified as “Bitchy” or demanding if they do.  The adaptation to ask indirectly for what they need or to ask for less than what they really want rarely works well.

In both work and home relationships, people are often mystified or frustrated by the lack of clarity.

“I wish she would just say what she really wants.”

“You said you wanted to stay home for your birthday – I don’t get why you’re upset.”

Complaining is Not Asking

  • Given that women are more expressive of feelings from the time they are little girls, they are better able to ventilate to reduce stress. That does not guarantee, however, that the listener will know what they want to change, remedy or do to improve the situation.
  • In an interesting study worldwide it was found that married men do less housework than women and less housework than males who are cohabitating but not married – Does marriage take away a women’s personal feeling of entitlement to ask for help?
  • Is she complaining rather than specifically asking? Should he know?  Maybe. Does he know? Maybe not.

A Paradoxical Couple Suggestion – Whereas we are always telling men to just listen without trying to solve the problem – here we are suggesting that women just say what they need without expressing all the feelings.

Catch-22 for Women

Crucial to her research findings and her thesis, Laura Babcock suggests that what has made it difficult for women to negotiate for her needs in the workplace is that she is often not re-enforced for doing so.

Babcock and others suggest that there is still a male cultural corporate bias reflected in the fact that men and even other women tend to react more negatively to women then to men who actively pursue their needs or try to aggressively ask for what they want.

The negative adaptation is to NOT ASK. The positive adaptation is for a woman to ask for and negotiate needs in a way that is authentic to her.

What Women Bring to Negotiation at Work

  • In the world of negotiations, the natural gender breakdown seems to be that men see negotiating as competitive winning or losing. This is the “Fixed Pie” or distributive approach – only one person gets the pie.
  • Women are much more inclined to a collaborative, integrative “growing the pie” negotiating style. This is an approach that capitalizes on cooperation and relationship building in negotiating sustaining decisions. It involves acknowledgment of cost and benefits to all parties.
  • The Corporate world uses both positions but is increasingly recognizing the viability of collaborative negotiating as the wave of the future in effecting more sustaining decisions. Women need to recognize the role they can play in asking for themselves and facilitating negotiating with others.

Bringing It Home

As much as partners feel like they really know each other, can answer for each other and can communicate with a smile or a mere glance- mind reading is not recommended as a  great couple skill. In fact, the safer it is for partners to ask for what they need, the more they can trust a “yes,” live with a “no” and make sense of either – the more fulfilled both will be.

Listen in to a Podcast with Olga Khazan discussing her new article in The Atlantic “ The Queen Bee in the Corner Office”