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What happens to our voice when we need to champion our cause? Why do we hear ‘boastful’ in our heads when a man hears ‘confident’ in his?

It’s back! On 8th March, women of the world will once again unite to celebrate International Women’s Day and use the day to applaud our successes and chafe at our constraints.

It’s also the time of year when surveys about women abound. Some of these studies attempt to point to evidence that women have made leaps and bounds in their struggles towards full equality in the workplace and home. Others, however, reveal that at the rate we’re going, that goal might only be achieved when our great-grandchildren are teenagers.

One study that caught my eye highlighted an issue that I must confess I come across frequently with my coaching clients; the fact that we women are, generally speaking, not the greatest when it comes to negotiating, especially when it is for ourselves.

I like to think that this is because we are intrinsically more modest than our male counterparts and therefore less demanding. It might also be that women are more likely to underestimate their value and therefore think ‘smaller’ than the stereotypical male. Whatever the case, it’s clearly not doing us any favours and leaving too way much to our great-grandchildren to fix.

Women on Top

According to the Davies' Report published in the UK, "A the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced board rooms in the UK". In her TED talk, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg addressed the issue of women in the workforce and why we aren’t making progress, pointing out that of the poor showing in the number of women leading governments or participating in democratic parliaments, or in top corporate or board positions.

What happens to our voice when we need to champion our own cause? When we are stating our achievements, why do we hear ‘boastful’ in our heads when a typical male hears ‘confident’ in his?

Even when women reach the top echelons of business – those coveted Non-Executive Director roles – it seems that we don’t stand up for our equal pay rights. According to recent research, while there has been progress in the representation of women on Europe’s boards, the gender pay gap has widened further year-on-year.

Finding Our Voice

Now, while women may have a reputation for being vocal and skilled at repeatedly reminding others of things that need to be done (yes, we know you call it ‘nagging’ if you’re a man), when it comes to being vocal as their own advocate, something goes wrong.

What happens to our voice when we need to champion our own cause? When we are stating our achievements, why do we hear ‘boastful’ in our heads when a typical male hears ‘confident’ in his? Why are we so keen not to overstate our experience and abilities when our male counterparts are equally determined not to understate theirs?

The facts don’t lie. In a study of Carnegie Mellon MBA graduates, 57% of the men, but only 7% of the women, tried to negotiate a higher initial salary offer. Not too much seems to have changed since then.

Not only do we not like ourselves when we sound pushy, it appears that neither do the guys. How a woman negotiates can not only impact negatively on her image, but it can also prove counterproductive, as research by the Harvard senior lecturer Hanna Riley Bowles and others has found. Their conclusions showed that women who negotiate are considered pushy and less likable and, in some cases, those women are less likely to be offered jobs as a result.

So damned if we do and shafted if we don’t; what’s woman to do? A surprising strategy for reducing the gender pay gap may lie in a simple solution: a smile. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon’s Professor Babcock, when men and women asked for a pay rise using identical scripts, people liked the men’s style, while the women were branded as aggressive. That perception changed if a woman gave a smile or acted warm and friendly. The irony of having to conform to a feminine stereotype to get equivalent financial treatment to a man is quite breathtaking, but nothing new to our sisters in the corporate world.

Just Keep Smiling

“The data shows that men are able to negotiate for themselves without facing any negative consequences, but when women negotiate, people often like them less and want to work with them less,” says Sheryl Sandberg, in ‘Lean In’, her book about women and leadership. “Even if women haven’t studied this or seen this data, they often implicitly understand this, so they hold back.”

In an interview with New York Times reporter, Nicholas Kristof, Sandberg says: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small; by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

So, while the rules may not be fair, says Sandberg, understanding the dynamics of the game will help you win.

Coaching women in negotiation skills is clearly the answer. In the USA, A negotiation skills workshop called Smart Start, run by Annie Houle, the national director of a group called the WAGE Project (WAGE stands for “women aim to get even”), tackles women’s fears during the negotiation process and offers strategies for overcoming them. The workshops help women understand the implications of the wage gap and learn their worth on the market. Women are taught never to name a salary figure first, and to provide a salary range rather than a specific number, if pushed. They are coached not to offer information about the salary from their last job, unless explicitly asked, and to use terms like “initial offer” to keep the door open. Most importantly, perhaps, they are taught to never agree to an offer immediately.

Onwards and Upwards

So, as we celebrate our progress as women, let’s not waste time in fruitless griping. Instead, let’s go forward in sisterhood to start negotiating harder, tougher and better – and all with a smile on our face.

Author of the novels From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books ‘I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

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