Whitney Johnson’s article Can Nice Girls Negotiate? on the Harvard Business Publishing website made me mad.  Not because I disagree with her; it’s her topic that gets me fired up: the never-ending world of double standards around gender.

The article is about studies showing that women who negotiate for more money are promoted less and paid less.  The reason for it can be summed up thus:  quoting the findings of psychiatrist Anna Fels, “when we are giving something to someone else, we are feminine; when we are asking for something from someone, we are not.”  In other words, Johnson says, women negotiating are pushy, whereas men are just being proactive. If we ask for what we want, we’re not “nice girls” because the definition of a nice girl is one who is attuned to the needs of others and puts them above her own needs.

The obvious point that Johnson doesn’t bother making is that the feminine ideal of a nuturing person who exists to serve others is clearly derived, at least in part, from our concept of maternity.  That makes me wonder, do those of us without children suffer some form of this unconscious bias merely by virtue of not being mothers, and being perceived as having put career before family?

This is really just a new spin on an age-old double standard about women being bitches and men being assertive, in my mind.  The question is, what do we do about it?

Johnson makes the point that we should negotiate anyway, because the worst case scenario is that we get turned down but we know more and can take appropriate action. Lest you be tempted to interpret that as “Now I know my boss is a jerk, so I can start looking for another job,” let me point out that the research shows that this bias applies to the decision-making processes of women managers as well as men.  To me this just underscores the fact that this is an example of hidden, unconscious bias that is created and sustained by our educational norms, pop culture, mass media, etc.

I agree with Johnson that we need to go for it anyway, because I think what we most need to do is expose this double standard for what it is.  By talking about it we get people to recognize their hidden biases and the impact they can have.  We can only do this if we’re willing to put ourselves in the very situations we want to expose.

Have you had an experience that relates to this issue?  I’d be interested to hear about it.

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