The Case of Philosopher W, Part II: The Feminist Moment

Yesterday, I wrote about W, a philosophy PhD whose tenure-track offer was rescinded when she asked the hiring institution for a number of goodies.  Much of the commentary on W’s case has focused on the perils posed to women by negotiating. (See yesterday’s links to the philosophy graduate student site Philosophy Smoker, which contains run-downs on the media responses.) Many articles about it use Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to lean in and negotiate hard as the journalistic hook. (Women negotiate far less than men–7% versus nearly 60% .) I’m concerned that much of this commentary on W’s situation misses a few points. Let me say why.

W did negotiate. Her statement about why is a poignant testimony to how much feminism has worked in making young women highly aware of the need to proactively ask for more: “This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: you ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them…I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

Yes, absolutely right. But the lack of reasons in the e-mail leads me to believe perhaps advice to women about negotiating has done, to date, only part of the job. She knew to ask. But she could have used advice on how to ask effectively. I think that educating young women about negotiating sometimes leaves out the “articulate the benefits and be attentive to the [institution’s, other person’s, whatever] needs” portion of the process because (the thinking goes) women need to put themselves first. To think about the other’s needs might lead to people-pleasing and scanting yourself, many women’s pitfalls.

There is a real risk of that, yes. But, real life negotiations aren’t simply expressions of healthy proactive interest either. After all, a request for a reduced teaching load might well have genuine negative repercussions for the department. (The department in question was tiny–a 4-person department split equally between female and male.) It’s an implicit request that another faculty member take the course , or that they ante up for an adjunct, or not have coverage. (I know adjuncts are poorly paid, readers. So I’m not trying to say it’s a big ante. But in a small college, it might make a difference.) I’m sympathetic to W’s situation, but I also can understand the reaction of college faculty and administration who looked at the e-mail and, if they were expecting a full-time colleague whose tenure track began next fall, saw that she was asking for nearly 50% time spent otherwise in the usual 6-year pre-tenure run.

It also wouldn’t have hurt to explicitly state up front that she was opening negotiations and knew they were counter positions that the institution could take, rather than simply sounding as if she was giving a laundry list that would have left them without an instructor for at least a year and a half. That could read to a committee thinking that they wouldn’t have coverage in the very area it’s trying to cover.

There is no harm in educating yourself in being smart in the negotiating process, as one of the better business commentaries points out. The list sans reasons makes me wonder if it doesn’t hide tentativeness, still; to give reasons is more bold than simply to ask. For a young post-student, especially, buttressing one’s own case with reasons might seem a bridge too far. So I think that the how of negotiation needs to be stressed, both as feminist point and student point.

I sometimes worry, too, that the emphasis on gender inequality as a causal explanation leads young women to worry needlessly, as if their gender is an implicit trap. It minimizes the very real progress that has been made in women being able—expected –to negotiate. The recursion of a gender explanation often assumes that women need basic advice they have in fact been receiving for decades now. (The advice to women to negotiate did not start with Sheryl Sandberg—she’s a bit new wine in an old bottle. I’m in midlife, so I have vivid memories of being told in the 1990s and even the 1980s to be assertive. Classes were given in this and everything.)

Perhaps what we need is parsing elements within gender more attentively. Sadly, recent studies show that women who negotiate are perceived much more negatively than men who do. Well, I’ll certainly keep the studies in mind, but because I also know a lot of women who negotiate successfully, so I wonder if the data couldn’t be broken down and parsed in different ways. Is there a difference in negotiation styles that women could learn from? Do men give more reasons, or more fully assume that they will be in an institution that wants their contribution and thus articulate that contribution as a matter of course? I’d love to hear other ideas on this.

In a final gesture of solidarity and education on this issue, I’ll give an example of a recent negotiation I did, and one in a very male world. (I owe my own negotiating stance to feminism; in fact, I could echo W that “this is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it.”) The old car I’d been driving around during graduate school died, and I had to buy another one. This was a big deal to me, as I’m in transition between graduate school, don’t have full time work, and don’t have a lot of money for a car. (I’m not trying to equate a tenure-track offer with a car; I realize it’s big apple and smaller orange, or bigger and smaller potatoes.) Still, a car is a major life purchase.

So, I researched used car prices, read a book (seriously) on buying a car which included a chapter on negotiating, and researched going prices for my old model. I managed to knock a substantial amount off the asking price of the new vehicle by and get more than initially offered for my old one by citing Kelly Blue Book values for similar cars. In each instance, frankly, the prices asked were already reasonable, I just managed to get a better deal. And the people involved did not fall over, or act as if there was anything unusual in my negotiation.

So we know to negotiate. We need our reasons and our evidence.

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