Evidence exists that some women may be staying silent rather than claiming what they deserve in the workplace. The purpose of this qualitative study was to shed light on whether and how women learn to speak up and negotiate for themselves during their careers. In hour-long interviews with 20 professional women in the fields of law, business, education, and the arts, information was gathered on: (1) whether and how each woman handled important incidents during her career, and (2) what factors supported, or hindered, her learning to speak up and negotiate on her own behalf.
The findings indicated that all of the participants recognized important incidents where speaking up and negotiating for themselves was important. With "speaking up" defined as "initiating" an exchange, 45% recalled neither speaking up nor negotiating in their early careers. Since some participants initiated but did not carry through with a negotiation, a large majority overall (90%) did not negotiate in the first incident they reported. Later in their careers, 75% of participants recounted speaking up, but only 55% reported also negotiating.
Results indicated four patterns of behavior: Constrained pattern (participants who feared and did not speak up/negotiate at work); Gender-conforming pattern (participants who avoided handling situations directly); Vocalizer pattern (participants who always spoke up and negotiated); and Strategist pattern (participants who changed their negotiation behaviors and attitudes during their careers).
The study shed light on factors that appeared to impact the participants' learning to speak up and negotiate. When women felt worried about potential repercussions or backlash for behaviors outside of perceived gender norms, this concern appeared to hinder their learning. When women focused on context and adjusted their behaviors and communications styles carefully, this focus appeared to enhance their learning. Women identified in the Strategist pattern reported engaging in skill-building experiences, conversing with others to explore what to do, gaining knowledge through courses, and being reflective.
Recommendations were offered for professional women about improving—and using—their skills, knowledge, and attitudes about negotiation; for educators about the need for more creative, and supportive programs; and for further studies in the field.