Why Women Don't Negotiate
Back in 2007, I wrote an article on Wise Bread about how women simply need to demand more money when negotiating a salary, either at a new job or an existing one. It's not that I have a long history of excellent salary negotiating skills or anything. Over the years, I've wavered between superb and terrible, depending on what my employment status was at the time. Fully employed but seeking better opportunities? I'm a negotiating whiz. Teetering on the brink of financial collapse? I'm so soft and mushy you could cut me with a butter knife and pay me in Monopoly money. (See also: Conversation Killers: What's Holding You Back from Negotiating?)
I understand the fundamentals of salary negotiation. I know what my skills are worth in the marketplace. That doesn't mean that I have gotten comfortable with negotiating my salary. Even when I know that I have outperformed expectations and really made a difference in the workplace, I find it extraordinarily difficult to say, "Thanks for the offer of a 1% increase, but I'll be needing at least a 6% pay raise."
It's Not Just Our Fault
For years I sort of assumed that this lack of skill was due to me being kind of a weenie. Women aren't really taught to be aggressive, and we are afraid of appearing like money-grubbers in front of our colleagues and supervisors. But this is our own problem, right? I certainly assumed so, because many financial gurus (ahem, Suze Orman) taught that a take-no-prisoners attitude was the key to success. I figured that I was simply too weak to get on board and demand more money, and that weakness was my own fault.
So, a few weeks ago, when I heard a story on NPR about women's lack of negotiating skills, I was thinking, "Yo, NPR, I'm really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but I wrote the BEST ARTICLE OF ALL TIME about this topic four years ago." Because, honestly, what else is there to say about women learning to negotiate? Women don't haggle well because they find it scary. Women are kind of weak, and they need to learn not to fear demanding more money. That includes me, of course. Despite my own advice about how to negotiate for more, my heart still jumps in my throat during my annual salary review.
"Women need to get over that kind of thing," I muttered, only half-listening to NPR. And then I heard this part of the story:
[Carnegie Mellon Professor Linda] Babcock showed people videos of men and women asking for a raise, following the exact same script. People liked the man's style and said, "Yes, pay him more." But the woman?
"People found that to be way too aggressive," Babcock says. "She was successful in getting the money, but people did not like her. They thought she was too demanding. And this can have real consequences for a woman's career."
To be clear, both men and women thought this way. (Emphasis added)
The issue is not that women are weak. It's that for women, negotiating is risky. Women are not incorrect in being worried that asking for a raise will make them seem aggressive. They WILL be perceived as aggressive, in a negative way, even when they follow the exact same script as a man, asking for the same thing. In the business world, aggressiveness is seen as a negative trait in women, but a positive one in men.
We actually know exactly how we will be perceived when we ask for more. Women don't labor under the misconception that asking for higher pay might be seen as aggressive; we live in a world where this is a fact.
And it's not just men who see women this way; we see ourselves this way.
Part of me wants to say, "Who cares? People need to learn that women can be aggressive." But this is an ingrained thought process, and those can be hard to change. Also, I've worked at companies with women who I loathed because of their overly aggressive and bossy nature. I'm as bad as anyone else when it comes to thinking that an aggressive, business-minded woman is just, to be frank, kind of a bitch.
What Does Lack of Negotiation Cost Women?
I've been thinking about the Carnegie Mellon study pretty much every day since the story first aired, and it bothers the heck out of me. It bothers me because I can completely believe the results of the study, in which a woman who acts exactly the same as a man is seen by observers as unlikable.
On one hand, the study involved a small sampling of people, and only two subjects — one man and one woman. I have no idea if there really WAS something about this woman who struck totally reasonable study participants as really unlikable. But it's my suspicion that the issue really is deeper than that, and that we expect women to ask for things in a certain way, and men in another way.
The problem with this expectation is that it ultimately hurts women. Knowing that we are going to be seen as unlikable when we state our cases for getting a raise makes us less likely to ask for a raise.
"I tell my graduate students that by not negotiating their job at the beginning of their career, they're leaving anywhere between $1 million and $1.5 million on the table in lost earnings over their lifetime," Babcock says.
And her figure doesn't even include company retirement contributions, which are also based on a share of salary.
See that? Not asking for a raise can make a difference of $1 million in lost earnings over your lifetime. That's not just worrisome; it's tragic.
What Should Women Do?
How should women negotiate pay raises? After all, it's not fair to lose $1 million in earnings over the course of your career. According to the researchers who conducted the study:
Babcock and Harvard researcher Hannah Riley Bowles wanted to find a way for women to ask for more yet avoid this societal backlash. They tested various strategies and found some that do work. Women can justify the request by saying their team leader, for example, thought they should ask for a raise. Or they can convince the boss their negotiating skills are good for the company. The trick, Babcock says, is to conform to a feminine stereotype: appear friendly, warm, and concerned for others above yourself.
I cannot possibly describe how much this idea rankles my Mount Holyoke-educated feminist brain. What is this, Mad Men? Why on Earth should I present myself as more concerned for everyone other than myself when asking for more money? Why shouldn't I expect to be able to present my case for increased salary in an honest way, regardless of whether or not the presentation isn't immediately palatable to a superior? Isn't that how social change occurs?
On the other hand, which issue is more important at the moment: My salary or the societal expectations that are placed upon women? I don't mean to suggest that I alone, by negotiating like a man, will somehow change the course of cultural norms and allow women to be at least as aggressive as men in the realm of salary negotiations. I alone do not have that kind of power.
My Negotiation Debate
Should I still charge forward and hope that other women will do the same, thus forever changing the way that female negotiating skills are looked at? Or should I use my feminine wiles to increase my salary, even if it means communicating in a way that I find, frankly, rather repressive? I've certainly used womanly charms to get what I wanted before, even though I am rather loathe to admit it. Then again, I don't know if flirting with a store clerk for a discount is actually hurtful to my fellow women, because it seems like such a harmless act.
When it comes to the world of salary negotiation, I am certainly torn. My salary, and its steady, incremental increase are crucial to my long-term financial security. As such, my concern over my salary might outweigh my concern for how women, and American women in particular, are forced to be passive-aggressive in their requests for increased monetary compensation. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if this was an issue that had already been resolved?
How do other women feel about this? Would you rather be straightforward in your negotiating? Or have you already worked out a system for asking for pay raises?