Opportunity Doesn't Always Knock
Heather, 34, was the pastor at a struggling urban church in the Boston area. Heather was also an officer of her denomination's local association council–a group of pastors from around the region that ordains ministers, reviews clergy on disciplinary charges, and helps churches find pastors. At a meeting of the council, another pastor, a man, asked the council to extend the support it had been giving him for the past three years. Heather was unfamiliar with this man's situation and sat up to listen. It turned out that this male pastor had worked for many years at a prosperous Back Bay parish, where he'd been paid a generous salary. Three years before the meeting Heather attended, he'd decided to move to a poor urban parish that was struggling to revive itself. He hadn't wanted to give up the salary he'd made at the rich downtown church, so he'd asked the council to supplement his income–to make up the difference between what he'd been making in the wealthy parish and what he would be paid at his new church. The council controlled a small discretionary fund–a fund very few people knew about–and had agreed to supplement the male pastor's income from this fund for three years. Now those three years were coming to an end, and he was asking the council to renew the subsidy.
Once Heather understood what was happening, she also realized that the impoverished church this man served was comparable in most respects to her church–and the salary he wanted supplemented was similar to the one on which she'd been struggling to support her four children for seven years.
Heather's response revealed a kind of fatalistic dismay:
This fund–I never knew of its existence. I mean, I was on the Association Council! . . . It had never been publicized. . . . There had never been any discussion about it in any meeting, there had never been any sort of sense that his time with it was up now, so that it was time for other churches to apply. . . . There is no application procedure; it's not like it's a grant that you can apply to get or something. It was really a matter of this guy being able to somehow finagle this.
Heather's experience perfectly captures one of the major barriers preventing women from asking for what they need more of the time: Their perception that their circumstances are more fixed and absolute–less negotiable–than they really are. It also highlights the assumption made by many women that someone or something else is in control. This assumption–the result of powerful social influences that go to work the day a woman is born–has a broad impact on women's behavior. Instead of looking for ways to improve a difficult situation, women often assume that they are "stuck" with their circumstances. Instead of publicizing their accomplishments, they hope that hard work alone will earn them the recognition and rewards they deserve. Instead of expressing interest in new opportunities as they arise, they bide their time, assuming that they will be invited to participate if their participation is wanted. They think any allowable divergences from the status quo will be announced and offered to everyone. Women expect life to be fair, and despite often dramatic evidence to the contrary, many of them persist in believing that it will be.
Stephanie, 32, an administrative assistant, illustrates how this belief can play out in a woman's life. Stephanie told us that she tends to think that "things will just happen and if they don't there's a reason why they don't." Because of this attitude, she was unhappy with certain aspects of her job for some time but never approached her supervisor to see if changes could be made. Finally, Stephanie received another job offer. When she announced that she was leaving, her supervisor asked what it would take to keep her. After her supervisor made every change Stephanie wanted, Stephanie decided to stay. When we asked why she hadn't told her supervisor sooner what was bothering her, Stephanie said, "I tend to think people are pretty fair, so maybe I'm too trusting and expect that I'm getting what I deserve in that I work really hard."
This chapter looks at this barrier and its origins–why it is that many women assume that they must wait to be given the things they want or need and don't realize more of the time that opportunity doesn't always knock.
Turnip or Oyster?
If people's beliefs about the opportunities in life lie along a spectrum, at one end would be the view that "you can't get blood from a turnip." People holding this outlook believe that "what you see is what you get" and most situations cannot be changed. They may also assume, like Heather, that if a situation could be changed, this fact would be advertised to all. At the other end of the spectrum is the view that "the world is your oyster." People with this outlook believe that life is full of opportunities, most situations are flexible, rules are made to be broken, and much can be gained by asking for what you want.
Linda and several colleagues decided to systematically investigate whether men and women differ in their positions along this "turnip to oyster" spectrum. To do so, they developed a scale that measures the degree to which a person recognizes opportunities to negotiate and sees negotiation as critical for realizing those opportunities.1 Scales are research tools that have been used for many years to measure behavioral and perceptual differences across people. Perhaps the most famous is the Myers-Briggs scale, which maps an individual's personality profile according to where he or she scores on four related scales (extroverted–introverted, sensing–intuitive, thinking–feeling, judging–perceiving). Other scales capture individual differences in beliefs, perceptions, and behavioral tendencies. Not all of these differences are innate or biological, of course. Psychologists believe that behavior is heavily influenced by the situations in which people find themselves–a person may drink more at a party where other people are drinking than he or she would drink if alone, for example. Nonetheless, some stable traits and attitudes do lead to differences in the ways people behave. Scales are used to try to identify those traits and attitudes. People who are rated high on a "shyness" scale, for example, have been shown to talk less and engage in less frequent eye contact than people who rate low on that scale.
Unlike some of Linda's earlier studies, which measured the frequency with which respondents took the lead in starting negotiations, this "recognition of opportunity" or "turnip-to-oyster" scale measured people's propensity to see possibilities for change in their circumstances. This is how it worked: As part of the web survey described in the introduction, Linda and her colleagues presented respondents with a series of statements such as:
·I think a person has to ask for what he or she wants rather than wait for someone to provide it.
·There are many things available to people, if only people ask for them.
·Many interactions I have during the day can be opportunities to improve my situation.
The survey asked respondents to rate along a seven-point scale the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with each statement. Low scorers would be people who see little benefit to asking for what they want because they perceive their environment as unchangeable (these would be the "turnip" people). High scorers would be people who see most situations as adaptable to their needs and regularly look for ways to improve their circumstances (the "oyster" folks).
Confirming our expectations, women were 45 percent more likely than men to score low on this scale, indicating that women are much less likely than men to see the benefits and importance of asking for what they want. Even more telling, we found that a difference of as little as 10 percent on this scale–that is, a score that was only 10 percent higher–translated into about 30 percent more attempts to negotiate (as demonstrated by another part of the survey). The strong correlation between high scores and a much greater tendency to try to negotiate confirmed our hunch that "oyster" people ask for what they want much more often than "turnip" folks–and that many more men than women are "oysters." Since men are more likely than women to believe opportunities can be "had for the asking," or at least that change may be possible, is it any wonder that they're more likely to speak up and let people know what they want?
During our interviews, we found women recounting story after story of not realizing what could be changed by asking–a problem that can arise early and persist well into old age. Amanda, 23, a management consultant, seems to be a very self-possessed and confident young woman. Interested in math and science, she studied engineering in college and was offered an excellent consulting job as soon as she graduated. By her own description, she has always been less like her mother and more like her father, who taught her to be focused and direct, and to go after what she wants. She said of herself "I don't like nonaction." Nonetheless, as a child she assumed that her parents wouldn't let her do all sorts of things–such as going away to camp, or taking trips with friends–that they permitted her younger brother to do. She isn't sure why she made these assumptions, and when as an adult she asked her parents about the different things that they allowed her brother to do, they were surprised. "You never asked us," they said, adding that it would have been fine with them for her to do the things she mentioned.
Kay, 41, a jeweler in Colorado, had worked for many months on a project creating minutely accurate reproductions of ornate antique jeweled boxes. For a year and a half, she and the other jewelers on the project had maintained a schedule that she describes as "insane, inhumane," working nights and weekends without any kind of a break. The pressure was straining Kay's relationship with her partner and her health was suffering. Finally, exhausted, she approached her boss and said she couldn't work nights and weekends anymore. She expected "all kinds of groaning and grumbling," but her boss agreed without a fuss. "I just came in one day and said that, and that was the way it was from then on," she told us.
Renata, 53, a vice president of a cosmetics company, collects art. Once, when she first began collecting, she fell in love with a piece by a particular artist. She loved it so much that she took it home and hung it in her house to see how it looked. She loved it even more, but she couldn't afford it and with great regret she returned it to the dealer. Shortly afterward, the artist who painted the picture died. Realizing that the work's value would skyrocket, Renata rushed back to the dealer, only to find that the piece had already been sold. "If you loved it that much, you should have asked me to work out a payment plan," the dealer said. "I would have figured out a way for you to have it." This had never occurred to Renata. She assumed that the price was the price, she either had the money or she didn't, and there was no flexibility in the situation.
In stark contrast, the men we interviewed recounted numerous tales of assuming that opportunity abounds–and reaping big rewards. Here are a few of their stories.
Steven, 36, a college administrator, is married to a professor at the school where he works. Shortly after the birth of their first child, Steven's wife was invited to spend a year as a visiting professor at a prestigious university in another city. Steven's job involved managing a staff of almost 100 people, which is hard to do from another city, but there was no question about his wife's accepting the invitation–it was a great opportunity. His wife assumed they were in for a year apart, but Steven was unwilling to accept this. Instead, he devised a plan whereby he could do part of his job from out of town and hand off some of his responsibilities to a colleague who would be on-site. In return, he took over several of her duties that didn't need to be done on-site. And he went further: He persuaded this colleague to take on some extra duties so that he could reduce the number of hours he worked and spend more time with his newborn daughter. Steven presented the plan to his boss, who was happy to accommodate the needs of a valued employee. Steven and his family enjoyed a wonderful year together, he and his colleague each acquired new skills from trading responsibilities, and Steven's job was waiting for him when he returned.
Hal, 41, owns a small chain of athletic clubs in northern California. For several years, he'd owned two adjacent lofts in San Francisco, living in one and renting out the other. After his girlfriend moved in with him, he wanted to enlarge his living space by expanding into the loft he'd been renting, but he didn't want to pay the exorbitant prices charged in San Francisco for design and renovation services. Hal had recently joined the board of directors of an Italian furniture and design company, and after a little thought he approached the company's president with the following proposal: "I will pay you to renovate my apartment at cost," he said, "but I will pay you up-front for the work. This will help your cash flow, and it will give work to the employees of your San Francisco store, which has just opened and is not yet busy. You'll also get a local reference and a local project to showcase." The president of the firm agreed, the store's staff took particular care with the project because they wanted to show the San Francisco market what they could do, and for far less than he could have paid any other way, Hal got himself a gorgeously renovated apartment.
Mike, 63, an entrepreneur, attended a New England private school as a boy. After an injury forced him to give up football, he became head cheerleader in order to continue supporting his team. As a big game with a major rival approached, Mike overheard a lot of boys expressing regret that they wouldn't be able to see the game because it would be played at the other school. Looking for a solution, Mike approached the local train company and asked if it would be possible to rent a train! To his surprise, the railway was happy to oblige for a reasonable price, and the entire school was able to ride in style to the football game. At the time, Mike's school sent close to 100 boys a year to Yale. The administrators and college counselors at Mike's school were so impressed by his initiative that they made sure his name was on the Yale list, even though his grades made him a borderline candidate. Going to Yale not only gave him a wonderful education, it provided him with contacts and opportunities that he relies on to this day.