Sasha Galbraith has a piece on Forbes today about Megan Brown, who launched a company called HatchedIt — a social calendar app, for planning, managing and coordinating events with friends and family. Much of it reads like a press release, a fluff piece about an entrepreneurial Mommy blogger, ripe for the kind of satire that Paul Rudnick dished out in The New Yorker last week. (But not, I should note, before Ruth Fowler beat him to the punch.)
What caught my eye was the title (“Lesson From a Woman of Wall Street: Ask For What You Want”), which promised to say something about asking; and what redeemed the article and kept it from being all fluff was Brown’s account of her rise through the male-dominated ranks of finance and her mockery of the “empty suits” with whom she used to work: “they all use a bevy of analogies like, ‘We all need to be rowing in the same direction’ and ‘picking the low-hanging fruit.’ You can’t understand anything they’re saying, but all the other men think they sound brilliant.” So here, I thought, is a woman schooled in the workings of power and language in the world of business.
For Brown, asking is something men expect; but it’s not something women do:
I also think there is a different way to manage men than you manage women… Men respond differently. I have to remind myself when dealing with a man, you need to be direct; you need to ask for what you need upfront; and you need to not be embarrassed or apologize. It’s a skill set that took me a long time to really understand in finance and I had to learn quickly to ramp up my career. But if not for those experiences, I don’t think I would understand that now, especially as we are looking for funding and partnerships, you really need to ask for what you want. And for a lot of women [in any industry or situation], that’s challenging.”
The trouble with this advice is that it rehearses stereotypes Brown probably learned from hanging around those empty suits. As research from the organization Catalyst shows, “it’s simply untrue” that women don’t ask.
For example, by looking at the career paths of over 4000 MBA grads from around the world, Catalyst found that women were more likely than men to ask for a variety of skill-building experiences and to proactively seek training opportunities. And we also 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.
Women do ask –but get little in return. Equally skilled men advance farther and more quickly than their female peers. In fact, we found that the $4600 pay gap that starts from day one grew to more than $31,000 several years down the track—even when women asked.
The Catalyst study concedes that “women who toot their own horn do get ahead –and are happier at work too,” but tooting your own horn is not really the same as asking. The issue is that when women ask, their requests are not being met. In a Washington Post article, Catalyst researchers Nancy Carter and Christine Silva point out that “people routinely take a tougher stance against women in negotiations than they do against men” and that talent management systems can be biased against women.
If entrenched sexism in the business environment affects everything from how women are received when they ask, to what they think they can ask for, as well as ideas of what power looks like, how it’s created and how it’s shared, then it might conceivably prevent some women from asking for what they want, or make it seem “challenging” to do so, as Megan Brown says. But I’m afraid that merely advising women “to ask for what you need upfront” is a bit like telling them they just have to lean in.