By Cait Clarke, director of federal programs at Equal Justice Works.
Barely a month into his presidency, Barack Obama signed an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls. "I want to be clear that issues like equal pay ... are not just women's issues," affirmed the President in remarks. "Our progress in these areas is an important measure of whether we are truly fulfilling the promise of our democracy for all our people."
Creation of the Council that March morning was reasonably big news, noted in The New York Times ("The White House celebrated women on Wednesday," wrote Rachel Swarns). A spate of congratulatory columns and blogs followed. "Women issues getting traction," proclaimed the headline atop op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof's piece two days later.
Then, after the last ripples of launch publicity stilled, the Council effectively disappeared from public view. Its next mention in The Times would be 17 months later, this past October, and then only as a brief item in the week's calendar note ("The White House Council on Women and Girls will play host to a women's entrepreneurship conference in Washington featuring Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama"). To my count, it hasn't shown up since.
I cite this story not to criticize the Council nor to minimize the praiseworthy work I'm sure it must be doing, but rather to underscore the notion that the mission of "empowering" women may constitute impeccable ideology but it elicits, at best, ephemeral popular support.
The "inconvenient" truth is that, to fully prosper as both a class and -perhaps more importantly - as individuals, women must get better at asserting themselves. Policy and statute are certainly critical to stop flagrant, documentable abuses. Context is important. But women themselves must, in a phrase, become considerably more comfortable about asking for what they want and be adept in getting it.
It was to that end - empowering individual women with skills that couldn't be marginalized - that I set out to write Dare to Ask! The Woman's Guidebook to Successful Negotiating. True, there are good negotiating texts available, but few (maybe none?) directly show women how to negotiate as women!
Examples of women suffering from their well-documented reluctance to negotiate are legion. We cite in Dare to Ask! a classic study of the starting salaries of graduates from prestigious business schools: Those of men were 6 percent higher than those of women (even more when bonuses are included, with initial differentials compounding over time) because, unlike their female counterparts, they didn't accept the first deal offered.
Even women lawyers get the blues! At the highest level of elite firms, female partners are paid on average $66,000 less than their male counterparts (this according to Professor Joan Williams of the University of California Hastings Law School).
For women to be effective negotiators, though, it is not enough for them to overcome their various inhibitions (such as the need to be liked, a proclivity to avoid potential conflict, the assumption that the other side will naturally do "what is fair and right"). Additionally, they must learn tools and tactics particular to them as women.
When women pattern themselves after men, when they model the aggressive style of the stereotypical male, research shows that they do badly in negotiations. Indeed, worse than they might have done otherwise. As Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard and others have shown, such actions trigger gender biases unrelated to the substantive issues under discussion.
When they behave more according to gender expectation, however, women do much better. Rather than repudiate one's feminine identity when negotiating (which many think is required), just the opposite is called for.
The "big idea" in Dare to Ask! is that by re-framing the negotiating paradigm from "I win/you lose" to something more akin to what we call "collaborative conversation," women not only level the playing field but actually tilt it to their advantage. Typical female strengths in social bonding, empathy, intuition, listening skills and creative problem solving can be turned into powerful negotiating assets.
So, to come full circle back to the White House Women's Council, it is clear that it will not be enough to adjust institutional frameworks (no matter how necessary). If America is to fulfill our democratic promise as per the President's dictum, or on a more grandiose scale make real the Dalai Lama's vision that "western women will save the world," women must learn how to effectively negotiate.