The Nice Girl's Guide to Negotiation

Last Updated Dec 7, 2009 8:33 PM EST

Studies show that women ask for raises far less often then their male co-workers, but the phenomenon of women being too bashful about advocating their cause is a much wider issue -- take the case of a (very nice) female friend of mine who works in media. Over dinner last night she complained about her problems pitching projects. Many times, she said, she has all her arguments lined up in her head, but when it came time to actually open her mouth, she struggled to articulate them and persuade her skeptical boss to give her the go-ahead.

In my brain, light bulbs of recognition went off as I recalled meetings in which I became suddenly tongue tied when it came time for me to make proposals -- this despite the fact that I knew I had good ideas to offer. While certainly some women excel at arguing and persuading (and some men don't), for my friend and I, and others like us, learning to state our case to a less than welcoming audience is one of the primary struggles of our early careers. At least Whitney Johnson's latest post on the HBR Conversation Starter blog reminds us we're not alone -- and not totally insane to stress.
The veteran investor cites a study with the ominous subtitle "Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask" that found "both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who did ask for more, the perception being that women who asked were 'less nice.'" In her experience, she concludes,

When men ask for something, they are being proactive; when women ask, they are being pushy. It's a double standard to be sure, but it's also a double bind -- if we don't ask, we don't get; if we do ask, we may be shunned.
Whether or not my friend's boss is actually the type to judge her harshly for fiercely advocating her case, the fact remains that this possibility probably contributes to the awkwardness many women like her feel when they negotiate or pitch their point of view, and this deep-seated worry can be hard to overcome. What's Johnson's advice?
Ask for what you want. You may not get it, but you won't leave empty-handed. At the very least, you'll get information. You put an ask on the table, an opening request; your employer or partners or board counters with a bid. If the ask and the bid are close, you know something. If they aren't close, will the bidders negotiate? You'll know something else.
It's reasonable advice but it lacks the nuts and bolts of actually overcoming your jitters (and avoiding any backlash from colleagues) that both my friend and I are after. Do and readers have helpful tales of how they battled their nice girl negotiation stress and learned to be a better advocate for themselves?

(Image of nice girl by JJ & Special K, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.