Think about the last time a woman you know played hardball. What was your reaction? "Wow, she's pushy." "Man, she's got some cojones on her." Or, the ever-so-popular, "What a...."

The reality is that most women simply don't ask for what they want. "Men and women are living in different worlds," author Linda Babcock told me recently in an interview while on tour for her new book, Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. "While men ask for what they want -- like additional research funding or new business cards -- women simply don't initiate the negotiation process."

If you think that this isn't your issue -- and are about to click over to the latest sports or market news -- consider the consequences of this cultural phenomenon:

  • Last year, there were 25,000 lawsuits filed under Title 7 for gender discrimination.
  • Each year, U.S. businesses lose $11 billion to the costs of attrition. One major reason for employee turnover? Women are pessimistic about their chances of advancement.
  • Managers who assign tasks to their most vocal employees are competing with only half a team. The No. 1 reason women cite for leaving a job is that their skills are not being used.

How does this keep-mum phenomenon play out in the real world? In 1991, female partners at Deloitte and Touche comprised just 5% of the firm's 29,000 employees. When the company assembled a task force to examine the issue, it found that the average annual turnover rate for female managers was 33%, with each percentage point translating into an estimated $13 million in hiring and training costs.

That's a high price tag for businesses -- the ones you work at and the ones you invest in -- simply because women don't want to stick around.

Deloitte and Touche certainly couldn't afford to have women clicking their heels and walking out the door. So it changed its corporate atmosphere and review process and instituted flexible work hours. By 2000, the number of female partners almost tripled to 14%, saving the firm close to $250 million.

The un-fair sex
There are even more dire consequences of this phenomenon. Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, and writer Sara Laschever looked at the larger societal ramifications of women's reluctance to speak up.

Medically, we suffer. Clinical trials for new drugs have long concentrated on male test subjects. Scientists have been reluctant to add women to their studies because it messes up their data.

Monetarily, we're handicapped. The gender wage gap improved in the 1980s, but there has been very little progress in the '90s, Babcock's research shows. For full-time workers, the ratio of women's to men's annual earnings is stalled at 73.2%.

Why the disparity? You got it: Women don't ask. In a study of students graduating from Carnegie Mellon with their master's degrees, only 7% of female students negotiated their compensation. Eight times as many (57%) of men simply asked for more money. As a result, she writes, "The starting salaries of the men were 7.6% or almost $4,000 higher on average than those of the women."

Oh, and guess what the starting salary increase was for men who took pains to negotiate? Yup, $4,053.

So what? It's a first job -- a mere stepping stone in your wife's or daughter's illustrious career trajectory. She'll make up the difference in no time, we assume.

Not so fast. This wage gap adds up over time. Failing to negotiate the starting salary at a first job, the authors cite, can cost a woman more than half a million dollars in potential earnings by the end of her career. And with retirement benefits tied to salary, women and their families suffer a double whammy, paying in today's dollars and tomorrow's Social Security checks.

All this because we simply do not ask for more.

Why women keep mum
When it comes to piping up for what we want, women still worry about being perceived as "bitchy" or "difficult" if we assert our needs or pursue our ambitions. We fear that approaching our bosses will hurt our professional relationships. And we mistakenly assume that merit and hard work will be rewarded.

Just sit quietly, do your job well, and the rewards will come, we tell ourselves.

Tick, tock, tick, tock. Still waiting?

The first thing that women need to do is to get to the negotiation table in the first place. We know that we're expected to haggle over cars and houses. But you can get better deals at department stores, hotels, and at home if you just ask. "More is negotiable than you thought," says Babcock. "Every interaction we have is really an opportunity for negotiation." (She elaborates on some of her triumphs in an interview with David and Tom Gardner on The Motley Fool Radio Show on NPR.)

The trick is to be armed with knowledge and to look for opportunities. At the workplace, know your market value and, with statistics in hand, ask to be compensated accordingly. When making a major or minor purchase, find out what it goes for elsewhere, and decide how much you are willing to pay, and at what point you will walk away from the deal. At home, consider what is an equitable distribution of chores.

Finding appropriate venues to hone your negotiation skills can pay off in spades throughout a lifetime.

Girl power
When it comes to the art of the deal, women and men approach the process very differently. Men see it as a game or contest. Salaries become the scorecard. Victories are measured by who walks out of the conference room with a smile on their face and who is left with a scowl.

Women, on the other hand, view negotiation as a collaborative process. Rather than setting out to win, we look for an outcome that makes both parties happy. In other words, men are "self-oriented" and women are "other-oriented." (Not my words, guys, so no angry emails, please.)

Women shoot for the classic "yes-yes" result. And guess what? It works.

Funny enough, negotiation experts say that the goal of their courses nowadays is to teach people to negotiate more like women. Instead of assuming that there is a conflict, they preach, the negotiation process should be approached with the attitude that the resolution will be good for both sides.

So how do you apply the softer side to your daily dealings? Babcock says that being collaborative, not aggressive, in your dealings is one way to take the edge off negotiations. Smiling puts people at ease. (Does this piece of advice make you gag like it does me and Babcock? The sad reality is that until men and women get used to assertive female behavior, gals have to tone it down.)

Society is changing -- there are stay-at-home dads, flexible work hours, deodorant strong enough for a man but made for a woman. But things can only change so fast. Recognizing the realities of the gender divide and their effect on the bottom line will accelerate the necessary changes.

Remember, it was just one generation ago that our moms -- those who worked, at least -- were forbidden to wear pants to work. Soon enough, our daughters will be able to walk out of the conference room with smiles on their faces.

Dayana Yochim wears jeans to work, smiles only when she's happy (or really embarrassed), and is the author of Couples & Cash: How to Handle Money With Your Honey.