Archive for March 9th, 2011

Don’t ask, don’t receive


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Fear of rejection keeps women from pushing for what they want.

International Women’s Day brought the usual complaints about the lack of women on corporate boards. In the lively debate about quotas, one obstacle to women’s progress was conveniently overlooked.

While it is obviously true that the pointy end of the corporate world remains a boys’ club that shuts out many talented women, there’s also solid evidence that part of the problem is women’s fear of rejection.

Few women are adept at the relentless self-promotion required to make it to the top of the corporate world. Most women are really bad at asking for what they want.

That’s the conclusion from researchers, led by Carnegie Mellon economics professor Linda Babcock, who documented women’s reluctance to negotiate in the workplace. She found women’s fear of rejection means they steer clear of the pushy behaviour that enables men to stand out from the crowd.

Throughout their careers, women’s inability to ask for what they want holds them back from achieving top incomes and top jobs. Over their working lives, women stand to lose on average half a million dollars due to their failure to negotiate their first salary – women who consistently negotiate earn at least $1 million more during their careers than women who don’t.

Men are four times more likely than women to enter into negotiations about pay and career advancement. And women will even spend thousands of dollars more when buying a new car to avoid having to negotiate.

Babcock’s research found most women dread these negotiations, putting them on par with a visit to the dentist. As for men – well, they are more likely to treat them as wrestling matches, happily coming back for a second and third round. If they are knocked back, they take it in their stride. Most men handle this type of rejection much better than women.

What’s really interesting is that this same pattern emerges in our most intimate relations. My research on how couples negotiate their sex supply revealed men’s extraordinary resilience, their willingness to keep trying for that green light.

When men with high sex drives are paired with low sex-drive women, the men often spend year after year being knocked back, sometimes quite literally slapped away when they seek to make love to their partners. “Every 10 times I might strike it lucky,” one man explained cheerfully, describing how he copes with his steady diet of rejection. Here are all these men spending years grovelling for sexual favours, coping with having sex doled out to them very, very occasionally, like meaty bites to a dog. The men don’t like it but they deal with it with remarkable stoicism. Asking for it, again and again.

But when women are the ones missing out, they react differently. A consistent pattern emerged with the sex-starved women taking part in my research. They complained bitterly about their sexually reluctant partners but rarely asked for sex.

That was the big surprise. Initiating sex was just too hard – they couldn’t cope with the rejection. Rather than trying to put the hard word on their partners, many preferred to leave the relationship.

Women’s reticence shows up in a magazine survey of 1000 women, analysed by American sex therapist Michelle Weiner Davis. She found that in marriages in which the man has low desire, nearly 37 per cent of couples have sex less than once a month. But when it was the woman who had low desire, only 20 per cent of the couples had sex so infrequently. Women recoil and become gun-shy when their advances are rejected.

So where do men get the thick skins that serve them so well, in bedrooms through to boardrooms? Obviously this is a complex issue, with male resilience stemming partly from the cultural imperative for males to deny their feelings. There’s also research showing that in the corporate world, women are more likely to be punished for pushy behaviour than men.

But part of the story could also lie in early dating behaviour, where teenage boys are still required to put themselves on the line and cop it sweet when women reject their advances. Women rarely have to run the gauntlet in this way and that’s why they find themselves disadvantaged when dating later in life.

With internet dating now providing opportunities for older singles to meet up, greying men are delighting in a buyers’ market, with 68,000 more single women than men in their 50s in Australia. RSVP, the largest internet dating service, reports that even in these competitive older age groups, it is still the man who makes the first move, with 75 per cent of first contacts initiated by males. Women are afraid to ask and they pay the price.

Bettina Arndt is author of What Men Want – In Bed.

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