The recent move by the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT), to ask for a raise is leading by example for women of all ages. Their performance from top to bottom has been exemplary, on and off the field, and for them, this would be a performance-based raise. 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 – Timothy 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 asked 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.

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 or females should be restricted to only “feminine pursuits”. 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. This is why in my spare time I am launching the Women Sports Film Festival, a venue for showcasing amazing female athletes expanding what’s possible for the next generation of girls. A 64-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), and the first Bangladeshi and only Bengali to complete the Seven Summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents). (Wasfia Nazreen - Wasfia). We are stronger than our fears.


The film festival trailer for the inaugural Women Sports Film Festival, music by SHEL.

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.