Why are women so scared to say “I’m awesome!”?

International Money Pile in Cash and Coins
International Money Pile in Cash and Coins (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Let’s say you’ve got the degrees and education and skills and smarts to land a job interview at Google.

Then you blow the interview because…you’re too modest to toot your own horn.


So reports The New York Times:

Meanwhile, there is the very Google-y approach of gathering data on precisely when the company loses women, then digging deeper to figure out what is happening and to try to fix it…

Google’s spreadsheets, for example, showed that some women who applied for jobs did not make it past the phone interview. The reason was that the women did not flaunt their achievements, so interviewers judged them unaccomplished.

Google now asks interviewers to report candidates’ answers in more detail. Google also found that women who turned down job offers had interviewed only with men. Now, a woman interviewing at Google will meet other women during the hiring process.

A result: More women are being hired.

Once hired, technical women were not being promoted at the same rate as men. At Google, employees nominate themselves for promotions, but the data revealed that women were less likely to do so. So senior women at Google now host workshops to encourage women to nominate themselves, and they are promoted proportionally to men, Mr. Bock said.

I find this fascinating, infuriating and sad.

But not surprising.

A book I recommend to every woman is “Women Don’t Ask”, which, even though it focused on an elite group, (MBA students), intelligently explores women’s ambivalence about asking for more at work, whether perks, money, power or responsibility.

From the authors’ website:

Women are much less likely than men to ask for what they want and to use negotiation as a tool to promote their own ambitions or desires. Sara interviewed nearly 100 people all over the country—both men and women—and found the same thing. Men use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want between two and nine times as often as women do.

(I’ve added the bold and italics.)

Why must women negotiate?

— We live longer than men and need more income in  retirement to support us. The less we earn in our work-lives, the less we’ll have in old age.

— Women often take some time out to bear and raise children, lowering their lifetime earnings and reducing the amount they’ll receive from Social Security.

— Women who fail to ask for more — get less. No one’s going to offer you anything if you leave it on the table by not even asking for it.

Modesty is a charming quality. I prize it. But not at the literal expense of earning less or facing a shortened career with limited prospects.

Why do women fail to ask for more?

Fear of being disliked. Fear of others’ disapproval for being pushy. Fear we can’t actually do the job.

All of which, on some level, are bullshit.

I’ve been negotiating for more money and responsibility since I was a teenager writing for national publications and paying my own way through university on my earnings. This wasn’t money I was blowing on clothes and shoes and cool shit I didn’t need, but groceries, rent and utilities.

Oh, and tuition and books.

One day I was in the newsroom of the paper I wrote a weekly column for, earning $125 a week. I overheard my editor trying to dissuade a male columnist from dropping his column: “But you’ll lose $200 a week!”

That additional $300 a month, $3,600 a year, was serious coin in 1978, and just as valuable today.

Negotiating isn’t fun or easy, which is no excuse to avoid it.

If you feel you’ve got more to lose, or less to fall back on, you’re probably likely to take whatever they offer. When an editor recently called me to offer a magazine assignment, she initially offered me $1,500. I know the market and my skills and asked for more. She gave it. She could have refused.

So our ability to negotiate also relies on our level of self-confidence, our skills, our networks — and our comfort level knowing our market value and feeling at ease asking for the pay that reflects, and respects, it.

It’s easier, always, to grab the first (lowest) offer and run.

I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck or pension. Negotiation was normal, tough discussions typical, and we all knew that those hiring us would probably try to offer the least possible.

You can also out-source some of this. I’ve used agents and lawyers many times to negotiate on my behalf. Yes, it costs money. But well worth it.

You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Do you negotiate?

How’s it working out?

27 thoughts on “Why are women so scared to say “I’m awesome!”?

  1. Nemesis

    I’ve certainly said it before and I will gladly trot it out again, “You Girlies are so often… your own worst enemies.” Individually and/or collectively. We still love you though.

  2. I guess as a guy I could negotiate, and I think there’s a slight possibility of a pay raise, but I’m a student employee on gov’t funds. I’m not negotiating, at least not at this point in my life. Maybe if I get a full-time job, then we’ll see.

  3. wwwander

    Wow! Sooo true! It seems obvious but at the same time it’s something I’ve never realized consciously. From now on I’ll rethink some of my actions at work. Thank you very much for this post!

  4. This summer, I joined Toastmasters public speaking group and it’s helping my confidence tremendously! Every day the witch-stitchery on my mouth loosens and my shoulders relax. I just negotiated a fair price on a two (small) creative projects SUCCESSFULLY! Yipee! It’s not a book deal, but it’s a step in a confident direction. Thanks for your continued discussion of this topic!

    1. Fantastic! I have friends who’ve done Toastmasters and had equally helpful results.

      It’s really challenging to start out on this path but the more often you do it, the better you get and, as you’ve seen, the more confidence you’ll gain in doing it again. Like everything we do, it’s a skill.

  5. Nicole Rogers

    I used to quite afraid of negotiating, but I found a way of doing it that I was comfortable with. I also figured that often you don’t have much to lose by negotiating. For me it was a matter of overcoming the insecurity of my own worth and the fear of seeming pushy or aggressive ( which are somewhat desirable traits in a man , but less so in a woman….)

    1. Exactly. Women get a lot of flak (the book I recommend really talks in detail about this) for being “pushy and aggressive” when it’s what many men do normally, and get no pushback for doing so. My attitude is this — if I don’t fight for myself, who’s going to? No one! So I long ago learned to care a whole lot less about what people think and more about my growing (six figure) retirement fund, It is the visible proof of the value of my willingness to ask for more…

  6. amandameetsbook

    I have gotten better as I’ve gotten older.

    I used to watch people get promoted before me and get perks that I wanted. Then I finally realized I was waiting for opportunity to come to me because I’m a woman and women shouldn’t ask!

    I just recently, in the last year or so, I really quit giving a shit about being “polite” an started taking myself seriously as a woman.

    My life has changed and all for the better. Life is too short to wait for things to just work out.

    1. I am thrilled to hear this — and thanks for sharing! I wonder what made you (?) change your mind.

      “Women shouldn’t ask”…because? We don’t need the money? Hell, yes we do. We don’t crave power. Pshaw!

      I think we’re fully capable of being polite AND successful…I decided in high school I’d rather be respected than liked. I have friends who love me dearly, but I piss off a lot of people by being direct. I’d rather take the hit and achieve more of my goals. I have plenty of pals.

  7. originaltitle

    There wasn’t really much to negotiate in my first job since teachers are paid what they are paid, but for this job I did negotiate to the highest range of what the job was offering (which still wasn’t much). I couldn’t justify going past that as I didn’t have much experience in the field, although I feel that I maybe could have negotiated a little more.

    I usually don’t ask because I feel that the worst case scenario isn’t “no” but, “you’re fired.” Or that there will be a stigma that I got what I wanted but didn’t earn it somehow. Even though I know that I DO earn it. Next time, I’m going to be more aggressive and hope it works out.

    1. Thanks for this…You make so clear all the things we think about that hold us back from better or more confident negotiation.

      I think one reason women don’t push harder is the fantasy that we have to be perfect to do the job well. Hah! My attitude is I’ll stitch my parachute on the way down — i.e. I’m a quick learner and can figure it out on the fly. Which means I often present myself as fully confident of my skills even if I’m not. I often hire assistants to help me with skills I’m weaker in.

      The notion of “value” is so highly subjective that we might think we’re not offering sufficient value when we are. I try to make sure of this by asking clients for feedback, which you can also do with your boss(es.) If they’ve overpaid you, that’s their issue as well, not just yours!

  8. I have to say I suck at negotiating. I struggle with the idea that I’m not good enough, but then I get angry at myself because, damn it, I AM good enough! If not better! I believe in empowering women to stand up for themselves and stop letting the world walk all over them, whether it’s small or big. Very thought-provoking….

    1. Who SAYS you’re not good enough?! I bet that’s not objective data coming from the people in your life who know you, love you, have paid you for your skills…

      I think women have a toxic stew inside their/our heads: I want to be liked (pushy broads are unlikable); I’m lousy at this and not worth more (really? says who?); they’ll say no (but what if they don’t?); I don’t really NEED that money (so go buy a pair of full-price Manolos to remind you that you EARNED them. I did, and love their symbolic power.)

      We need many more people pushing us to achieve our maximum, not shrinking safely to our non/less-threatening minimum.

  9. I work in technology and it’s still mostly men in the office. I consistent get raises but don’t necessarily ask for them. I complete an annual self review to assist my boss in figuring out my accomplishments throughout the year. Perhaps it’s my generation X mentality but climbing the ladder doesn’t motivate me at all. I enjoy the increasing challenges of my job and the fact that I have enough free time to enjoy my family and do the other things I like to do. I will speak up when something is unfair and have affected change in that regard.

    My favorite quote (a la Pinterest) as of late is, “I don’t care what you think of me. Unless you think I’m awesome. In that case, you are right.”

    1. Interesting quote!

      This is intriguing — and may well be generational. Millennials are said to be fairly obsessed with making social change, not $$$ or power or career goals per se.

      Baby Boomers, of which I am one, have had a stupidly hard time with work — too many of us and too few good jobs, thanks to three recessions (in the US anyway) since 1989. My brother, who is 10 years younger and runs his own software company, has had a totally different experience of work: age, field, skill set, country…

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