Women Should Ask

When my preschoolers get angry that I served them water in the wrong cup, I point out that if they didn’t ask for the green cup they have no right to get mad they got the red cup. Yet when professsional women don’t ask for the support or flexibility they need to balance family and professional lives, their struggle is seen differently. There are risks to asking, we’re told, with examples (like this and this and this and this) of women penalized when they negotiate their job offers.

However, in spite of barriers and inequalities, moms have more to lose by not asking than by asking. Also, asking in the course of an on-going relationship with a manager is different than asking in a one-shot situation like a job negotiation. In an on-going relationship the incentives are different; both parties have a greater incentive to keep the relationship strong by coming to agreement or getting over a “no” than in an easily terminated job negotiation. Both parties also have opportunities to refine the request and the response in subsequent interactions, since there is less time pressure than when a job offer is waiting.

Women should ask. Women don’t ask, or at least not nearly as much as they should, Linda Babcock points out in her book. But women should ask. Just asking goes a long way towards getting what one needs or wants. You don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you do.

Ask politely. Ask diplomatically. Give good justification. But ASK!

Through three maternity leaves, I’ve learned what asking can get you. It wasn’t always what I wanted, but it was never worse than not asking, and it was sometimes exactly what I wanted.

Baby #1: I took my full 4.5 months of paid and unpaid leave before returning to work. My milk supply was barely adequate and I struggled to pump enough for my baby. It seemed like I was spending a quarter of each day in the mothers’ room, then struggling to find enough hours to get my job done. I asked to cut back to part time. My boss refused.

  • I didn’t get what I wanted.
  • I didn’t get in trouble for asking.
  • Nothing changed.
  • I didn’t ask again. I failed to take advantage of my continuing relationship to refine my request.

Baby #2: I was with the same employer but older and wiser. Also, my husband was no longer working for a startup and his job provided excellent health insurance and pay. I asked again. I asked better. I think the tone of my voice communiated clearly how determined I was to find a different arrangement than with baby #1. I suggested that since my CEO was opposed to part-time design engineers maybe I could temporarily switch to another job within the company, and my boss immediately asked me to make a concrete proposal for part-time. I spelled out in advance exactly how I wanted to ramp up from leave to 20 hour weeks to 30 hour weeks to full-time. My proposal was approved unchanged.

  • I got what I asked for.
  • It wasn’t ideal, but it was a hella better than the baby #1 arrangement.
  • I didn’t get in trouble for asking.

Baby #3: New employer. New situation: I was hired half-way through my pregnancy, so many of the legal protections for new moms didn’t apply. I had no choice but to negotiate. I was also more experienced and thus had more leverage than previously — I wouldn’t be easy to replace. I asked for flexibility. I got better than what I asked for: flexibility and decent pay.

  • I got more than I asked for.
  • I was way more productive than in my first year after baby than with either of my previous two babies. My employer got a great deal, too.
  • I didn’t get in trouble for asking.

Baby #3, the 2nd ask: My super flexible arrangement was supposed to end when my baby was 6 months old. I sat down with my manager to review. My manager is a tall, well-respected man with a deep, confident voice. He’s usually succinct and to the point. That day he took 5 or 10 minutes to lay out for me why part time engineers are a bad idea. I looked him in the eye, explicitly acknowledged what he’d just told me, and said: “I’d like to continue working part time.” I then asked for 80%. He accepted.

  • I got what I asked for.
  • I’ve done my job well enough that my manager can’t point at my performance to justify a return to full-time.
  • I didn’t get in trouble for asking, though the asking was scary.

What my experience has taught me is that asking can be hard but the results are extremely rewarding. I’ve also learned that you need to be diplomatic and smart about how you ask:

  • Understand your employer: Analyze what matters to your employer. Try to find solutions that are meaningful to you and easy for the employer. If you don’t know, ask. With baby #1, I was too distraught to even ask what partial or creative solutions my employer could suggest.
  • Present the facts: One woman I know presented her manager with her weekly schedule, including both baby and professional committments, to explain her request for reduced hours. He was stunned. He had had no idea. He let her stay home one day per week at a company known for long hours.
  • Give people a chance: With my 3rd baby, I knew that many of my co-workers had no idea what newborn care entailed. I took it upon myself to educate them, enough that they could sympathize, gradually so they could hear it. I discovered that though some were clueless about infants, they are nice people who were happy to support me once they understood how.
  • Accept “no” gracefully: Even if you ask beautifully, your manager might tell you “no”. You might not get what you want. Move on. Don’t be angry. The future may bring another chance to ask and you might think of a more palatable request. Your future requests will fall on kinder ears if your response to the first conversation is constructive.

This post is duplicated on my old blog.