There are many inspiring commercials featuring the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT), portraying them as role models for young girls who hope to achieve at the highest level of their sport.
The most powerful thing the USWNT is doing for women of all ages is to lead by example by standing tall and asking for a raise. Yes, let’s first talk about this equal pay issue as a performance-based raise. Their performance from top to bottom has been exemplary, on and off the field. As it turns out, simply “asking” requires the courage to work against how we’ve been socialized to behave as females.
As a society, we teach women that it is not appropriate or “feminine” for them to focus on what they want, assert their own ambitions, and pursue their self-interest—and we don’t like it when they do. From the time they’re very young, girls are taught to focus on the needs of others rather than on their own. The messages girls receive—from their parents and teachers, from the books they’re given, from the movies and television shows they watch, and from the behavior of the adults around them—can be so powerful that as women they may not even understand that their reluctance to ask for what they want is a learned behavior, and one that can be unlearned. They often don’t realize that they can ask for something they want, that asking is even possible.
– Women Don’t Ask, Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever
Women don’t ask. Women don’t negotiate nearly as often as their male counterparts. This has an incredible impact on the careers of women, “by not negotiating a first salary, an individual stands to lose more than $500,000 by age 60 – and men are more than four times as likely as women to negotiate a first salary.” – Women Don’t Ask. This needs to change – and it can change.
If Asking Requires Courage, What Are Women Afraid Of?
In the course of the author’s research on why women don’t negotiate, a common theme was a “fear that asking may damage the relationship.” During the interviews for the book, the authors documented the following reactions from women on the subject of negotiation.
- Becky, a journalist: “When I go into a negotiation . . . I think about maintaining that relationship before I think about my own [needs] really.”
- Susannah, political strategist: “I just feel so guilty. I worry that I’m putting them in a difficult situation, especially if I’m asking for something that I think will be hard for them to give to me.”
- Eleanor, literature professor and biographer: “When it came down to it, I backed down because I didn’t want [my editor] to hate me.”
In my personal experience, the fear of asking is best summed up by a quote that changed my business life:
“Most people work for approval.” - The Four Hour Work Week – Tim Ferris
If you go into a negotiation with your primary concern being the approval of the other party, you are not actually negotiating; you have already conceded that their needs are more important than your needs. The USWNT are not making this mistake. They are standing up for their side of the bargain, as they should. It is their job to take care of their needs, just as it is U.S. Soccer’s job to take care of their side of the negotiation.
The first time in my career I truly negotiated for myself, I was already in my mid-30’s.
I was offered the position of president of a software company after the two men above me were removed. The company expected me to take on the new role and the new responsibility with no change in my compensation. The explanation I was given probably sounds familiar to many women reading this article. “This is a great opportunity for you and we know you really want it.” All of that was true. It was a great opportunity for me, it was something I really wanted AND it was something I deserved to be paid fairly for. Even though it was very uncomfortable for me, I negotiated hard on my own behalf with the help of a talented negotiation coach and mentor. The process ended with a compensation plan that reflected both my skill and my role. On that day, I stopped working for approval.
Negotiating for the Next Generation
What makes the USWNT stand for equal pay even more courageous is that this negotiation is really for the players that come after them. They are standing up in the prime of their careers when they have the most power (and the most to lose) for the benefit of future USWNT team members. We are all standing on the backs of courageous women who fought for equal treatment: Emmeline Pankhurst in the Suffragettes movement, Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement, and Edith Louise Starrett Green in the fight for Title IX, to name a few. This summer, Serena Williams won her 22 major tennis championship with the help of Althea Gibson (the first person of color to win a grand slam tennis title). The USWNT are taking their turn, just as Breanna Stewart of the WNBA joined in during her acceptance speech at the Espy’s for Best Female Athlete, by saying “Equality for all takes each of us making an effort.”
The Solution Requires Efforts on Many Fronts
Hats off to the women of the USWNT. Your courage is commendable. You have our support, but it isn’t enough that you are going it alone. We all need to play a more active role in creating a more equal world. We can’t continue to propagate the message that it’s not appropriate for females to exercise their power. I heard a story recently about a film crew that covered the Men’s World Cup Soccer Championship in Brazil, sponsored by a major consumer brand. When the film crew asked about a similar project for the Women’s World Cup in Canada, they were told that the brand preferred to spend their marketing dollars on women’s sports that were more “feminine.” This issue runs much deeper than simple economics. Every member of our society (including those people making decisions about sponsorship dollars) have been infected by the “women shouldn’t do that virus,” and that needs to be eradicated in our lifetimes.
The world is full of women who are already doing amazing things that break through this stereotype and expand the next generation’s idea of what’s possible. A 60-year-old woman swims from Cuba to Florida (Diana Nyad – The Other Shore), a freestyle skier and mother is the first female to attempt a quad-twisting triple somersault in the freestyle skiing aerials (Lydia Lassila – The Will to Fly), an Indian girl born born in the untouchable caste who wants to be a boxer (Thulasi – Light Fly, Fly High), and the first Bangladeshi and only Bengali to complete the Seven Summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents) (Wasfia Nazreen - Wasfia).
Those stories need to be told. Those stories need to be seen. As Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender and Media says, “if you can see it, you can be it.” We have a collective responsibility to the next generation to broaden their perspective of what’s possible. We are stronger than our fears.