In their outstanding and thoroughly researched 2007 book, Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever shed light on women’s widespread and persistent failure to negotiate successfully for themselves in the workplace, including for salaries and career advancement.  If you are looking for opportunities to move forward with your career, I urge you to consider the authors’ insights. They are even more urgent today, six years after they were written, as we emerge (slowly) from a deep economic downturn.

Habits and Beliefs: Barriers to Advancement

Here are some of the challenges that women tend to face, particularly in the realm of career mobility and advancement:

  • Low expectations and goals. Women frequently set their sights low, seeking to get only what they “need” versus what they deserve.
  • Discomfort with self-promotion. At least two beliefs are at play: women should put others’ needs first, and self-promotion is somehow inappropriate.
  • Anxiety about asking for what they want. Fueled by a lack of training and experience, women typically avoid negotiation and the negative feelings that accompany it.
  • Fear of damaging important relationships. On a related note, women often fear that their requests may harm the relationship or create conflict with the person they are asking.
  • Belief that hard work will be noticed and rewarded.

Do any of these resonate with you?  If so, you are not alone. Unfortunately, these tendencies can have significant and lasting impact on earnings and career progression, not to mention personal fulfillment and self-confidence. And they are especially problematic right now. Despite recent growth and optimism in the labor market, opportunities remain scarce. Failure to take action beyond hard work and strong day-to-day performance will likely mean that those opportunities will go to someone else.


As with any change, the first important step is simply to be aware. Regardless of whether the causes are biological, cultural, or environmental, women tend not to ask, negotiate, or pursue. Recognizing these patterns of habit and belief may open the door to experimentation with new ideas and actions.

More specifically, some positive action steps include:

  • Invest in your network. Networks are the source of emerging (“hidden”) opportunities and referrals. In addition, the stronger your network, the more likely its members will be to advocate for you. Your investment of time and energy will have real and lasting payback.
  • Seek input, advice, and assistance. The support and guidance of others (colleagues, friends, family, professional advisors) provide a powerful counterweight to reflexive feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and fear. Your support network can: advise you on how to sell yourself, critique your plans to ask for what you want, and provide vital external insight on your true value.
  • Build relationships while you build yourself. Focusing on both goals – advancing your career and strengthening the relationship (by understanding the other person’s needs and goals) – can lead to better, more lasting outcomes. Indeed, this cooperative and integrative approach is increasingly viewed as an advantage that women bring to negotiations.
  • Find an advocate, be an advocate. Women often excel at promoting someone else’s interests, but have trouble in promoting their own. Identify someone who can be a powerful advocate for you as you pursue a new opportunity. In the spirit of paying it forward, look as well for ways to advocate for a colleague who deserves a boost in her career.

Strong performance is the foundation of career success.  But meaningful advancement will likely also require the courage to fight habit and belief.  Each step forward paves the path not only for yourself but also for the women who follow in your footsteps.

About Cathy Alfandre
Cathy Alfandre

As a career coach and Master Resume Writer (MBA, MILR, CCMC, MRW, ACRW), Cathy helps leaders clarify, pursue, and attain their goals. She creates tight resumes, letters, and other marketing materials that express and sell her clients’ unique value. Cathy's prior work in human resources consulting included extensive involvement in staffing and selection, and she has 15 years’ experience in private and public sectors.

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