"Women should always negotiate." This is the advice Caroline, a 26-year-old woman working in tech, had in mind when she received a job offer at a booming startup. But when she attempted to negotiate the salary, the company withdrew the offer.
Like me, Caroline (a pseudonym to protect her identity) grew up in the era of ‘90s girl power — where the Spice Girls’ Wannabe blasted, “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want” from the radio.
By the time Caroline got to college, girl power had given way to #girlboss, and the list of directives for getting ahead as an ambitious woman was ever-growing: speak up, negotiate, be more confident, and always, always ask for more.
“It was like, women don't negotiate very much. Why is that? They just need to negotiate like men do,” Caroline remembers hearing.
But that advice ignores the consequences women may face when they do just that.
For example, women who negotiate are more likely to be labeled aggressive and demanding and are less likely than their male counterparts to actually get the raises and promotions they’ve requested. Women of color are 19 percent less likely to receive a raise than white men — and are more likely to experience penalties such as lower starting salaries for asking.
As Caroline found out, these negative perceptions and penalties can translate into real costs, “I've also talked to three other women that said, ‘Yes, this happened to me. I tried to negotiate and the company either ghosted me or rescinded the offer.’ And we're still getting told, ‘Just ask, just ask.’”
I call this paradox the ambition penalty: the social, professional and financial costs women face when asking for more.
While a rescinded job offer might be extreme, it’s just one of many examples of the ambition penalty in action
Recruiters avoid working with high-achieving women even at the outset of their careers. A 2018 study analyzing gender and GPAs on job applications of recent college majors found that high-achieving men were called back for an interview at nearly double the rate of high-achieving women. ‘These findings suggest that achievement invokes gendered stereotypes that penalize women for having good grades,’ write the study authors. In short, women with good grades are less likely to get hired.
And when women do get hired and do reach leadership positions, they are more likely to be disliked and disrespected by peers.
Meanwhile, at home, when straight women have financial and career success, it’s common for their romantic relationships to suffer.
One study found that male stress levels rise if a female partner earns more than 40 percent of the household income. Researchers hypothesize that men interpret a female partner’s success as their own failure, and this bruised ego effect can have a lasting, negative impact on the relationship. For example, successful, breadwinning married women are three times more likely to get cheated on by their husbands.
From school to home to work, when women succeed, they are considered less likable than their successful male counterparts. And in some cases the penalty is worse when a woman’s success appears to be the result of her ambition.
In my Bloomberg piece earlier this year about how the ambition penalty affects women’s ability to build wealth I wrote:
A 2020 study linked this backlash directly to women’s ambitions: When women were arbitrarily assigned leadership positions, they were less likely to experience a decrease in likability. It was only when a woman actively chose to pursue a leadership position that she encountered penalties. This suggests that more than power, influence or success, women are penalized for the pursuit of those things.
And yet, efforts to push back against gender gaps continue to put the onus on women despite these penalties: We’re told to “be more confident,” “speak up,” to engage and negotiate — advice that perpetuates a false narrative that women are inherently less confident and ambitious, and that achieving gender equity is as simple as asking for it.
"I just feel like that probably works really well for men,” Caroline told me.
When I asked Caroline how she felt about the advice that the worst you can hear is ‘no’ in a negotiation, she replied, “A more realistic version of that saying would be the worst they can do is demean you, gaslight you, tell you that you don't have the skills and experience that you do and tell you that you don't actually care about working at their company.”
Stories like Caroline’s (which you can hear more of here) remind us that women actually are speaking up, they are asking for what they want and they are working hard to get all that they deserve, but they’re doing so within a system of institutions that undermine and penalize them when they do.
In response to that Bloomberg piece, I heard from so many women about their own experiences of the ambition penalty.
And now I want to hear from you. Where and how have you experienced the ambition penalty: at work, at home, with your family, your friends?
Leave a comment below. Or if there’s something you’d prefer to share privately, you can respond directly to my email when you subscribe to Too Ambitious (if you haven’t already).
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