At a breakout session during the Council of Urban Professional's recent Women's Leadership Forum, managing directors, law partners and senior media executives broke into small groups to ask one another for help and to offer resources -- an "ask" and an "offering."
The idea behind this session was to take networking to the next level by creating circles of openness, trust and reciprocity in which women could help each other with an important introduction, access to capital, a board seat, advice about a career transition or other business need.
One thing that happened next should not be a surprise: All the women engaged and "offered" with gusto. They exchanged contact information. They talked about their current jobs and careers. And they lent advice and help. After the session, many followed up with one another in an effort to sustain these relationships. But there was one surprise in the small group discussions: What many of them couldn't, or wouldn't, do with ease was ask for help for themselves.
Senior level professional women at the top of their careers still felt uncomfortable asking for support from peers sitting across from them offering to give whatever assistance they could.
Studies show women are very generous people. Setting straight the stereotype that women undermine each other's progress, a recent study by Catalyst and a second by Harvard, NYU and the University of North Caroline show that, on the contrary, women are far more likely than men to mentor their female colleagues and help them advance. Women are more likely to offer help when they see the need. But women don't often ask for this help.
Economist Linda Babcock and writer Sara Laschever address this very issue in the groundbreaking book, Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation - and Positive Strategies for Change (Bantam, 2007). Men, they say, ask for what they want twice as often as women do and initiate negotiation four times more often.
Not only are women less likely to ask in the workplace, they are also less likely to ask friends, unlike men, who will say that they prefer to do business with friends. And as the recent Women's Leadership Forum breakout session exercise showed, women are uncomfortable asking even when they have been encouraged to do so as part of a group exercise.
The cultural, economic and institutional barriers to women's advancement are well documented. And there are an abundance of women's mentoring circles and affiliation organizations dedicated to breaking down these barriers and helping women advance. But few of these structures focus on helping women overcome their discomfort in asking for what they need and their reluctance to do business, or even talk about their work, with their friends.
So how do women make this change? Babcock and Laschever offer numerous ways that individual women can work to overcome their fears and learn to ask, to negotiate and to discuss professional needs with confidence. In other words, challenge our mental assumptions about "what is appropriate or suitable behavior."
But like Carnegie Hall, the way to get there is to practice, practice, practice. So one step women can take is to create circles of reciprocity -- that help participants flex this underused transactional muscle -- whose sole purpose is to prompt and facilitate asking and offering. Circles that meet or interact regularly, to which participants invite new members to grow the circle, refresh the thinking and expand the collective resources. These groups can be casual, like a book club, or structured like a networking group, with the single most important rule being that everyone must regularly ask for something.
According to Babcock and Laschever's research and findings, women are reluctant to ask for what they want in the workplace and feel they aren't entitled to ask. A good way to help women overcome this is to help them practice asking, repeatedly. Once women get more comfortable with asking and begin to experience the enormous benefits of a powerful circle of reciprocity, they'll ask for more and do so more often.