Earn More Money by Demanding It

Photo: Pretty Money

The hardest part of negotiating a work contract is the pay. I despise having to demand a certain amount of money, even though I am well aware that I deserve a certain amount of money. That's why I love working with job recruiters - they set the rates, and they usually do their best to get you the most money, because, let's face it, they're taking quite a bit more off the top of it.

But for freelance work, or if negotiating your own salary, you're on your own. And that is one of the most terrifying things for me.

It's odd, really. When I go through the interview process, I'll get questions like, "So, you think you can learn C++ in a week?" and I can say "Sure, no sweat" without batting an eye. But when the hiring manager finally gets around to "Alright, let's talk money", my heart leaps into my throat and I feel like I am going to hyperventilate.

History - They Told Me to Aim Low

This attitude is a product of my experience. I've had many interviews where the salary was discussed only at the very end. Terrified that I will knock myself out of the running by demanding too much, I would always aim low. Sometimes, that would mean that I got paid very little to do a lot or work. Other times, I would be told that $10 an hour is a LOT of money for someone with only 6 years of working experience. And sometimes, I believe that I have knocked myself out of the running by undervaluing my work.

This is a problem for most women. Thus, this article is written from a female perspective, but it can apply to men, too.

The fact that I am so bad at expecting to make money is odd. I'm a feminist, and I was raised by feminists. I went to a women's college, where being a feminist is more or less standard, unless you are one of the "conservative" women who believes that places like Smith and Barnard are actually finishing schools and not modern colleges. My college, strangely enough for all of their talk about empowering women, didn't do much to help us learn to negotiate salaries. At all.

When I graduated with my degree and headed to New York City to find work, the first bit of job advice I got was "Don't aim to high. Pretend that you really just want a stable job with a stable salary. You get your foot in the door, then you advanced after a few years. Don't show ANY ambition."

Another method for negotiating pay that I was taught to use was to find out what the pay range is before stating your rate or desired salary. Sometimes this works, and the manager will happily tell you; other times, you can go back and forth with one of those "What do you want to be paid?" - "Well, what's the pay range?" - "It varies. What do you want to make per hour?" - "How about you tell me how much the position can pay me, and I'll tell you if it's acceptable?" - "Well, what's acceptable to you?" kind of bullshit loops that gets you nothing in the end.

This, and a need not to appear greedy, has me in a panic when it comes time for me to explain what my time and skills are worth, in hard dollars. I know I'm not alone in this behavior, because it's a common and well-studied phenomenon among women. There are some jobs in which women are paid more than men, but mostly, we lag behind.

There are lots of theories as to why this is. Some people would like you to believe that maternity leave reduces our productivity and thus, we get paid less over all. Some people believe it's part of the inherent sexism that we still deal with in our society (more on this in another blog post).

I'm not in the mood to crunch the numbers, but I will say this: part of the reason we don't get paid as much as men is because we don't expect to get paid as much as men.

Queercents covered this a while back, but it bears repeating. According to Forbes.com:

Here's a startling fact: By not negotiating their salaries, many women sacrifice more than half a million dollars by the end of their professional lives. "That is pretty scary," says Linda Babcock, the Carnegie Mellon University economics professor who researched that figure. Babcock surveyed M.B.A. students who graduated in 2002 and 2003 and found that those who negotiated received 7% to 8% more than what they were initially offered. And of those two graduating classes, 52% of the men negotiated, compared to only 12% of women. Over time, that adds up, since percentage raises are based on a person's current salary. "Women leave a lot of money on the table," says Babcock, who also co-authored the book, Women Don't Ask.

Put Your Monetary Past Behind You

Now, I think that employers should always state the pay range for any position. I don't like reading things like "Competitive" or "Commensurate with experience" in the Pay section of a job posting. I'm sure this is done to weed out people who just look for high-paying jobs, but still, it makes it very difficult. "Competitive" is a very subjective term. But since this is the game that we all must partake in, I have to say this:

Aim high.

It doesn't matter how much money you make right now. It matters how much you are worth, and how much you want to make.

I'd probably still be making a crap salary if I didn't have a hiring manager take pity on me and double my pay in one fell swoop. During a bad point in Seattle's economy, I was working my butt off at a company in which the writers made 30K per year while the web designers made something like 75K. What can I say? I was desperate for work, so I took a salary that I knew didn't reflect half of what I was worth.

When a manager at a local tech firm interviewed me for a new job, he asked me how much I wanted to be paid. I stammered a bit, and said something like, "Well, I guess $22 an hour or maybe... yeah. Like, $22." He stared at me for a few seconds, and then said, "I'm going to put you in at $35 an hour." That's what my skill level typically brought in, and it's what I should have been making all that time. But I didn't know enough to demand that much, so frightened was I of being unemployed.

Stick to Your Guns

I have an annoying habit of being wishy washy about pay. The truth is, for freelance work, I do have a wide range of rates. If I'm doing copy writing for a web site about bunny rabbits, then I charge much less than I would for highly technical documentation. So, I've found it necessary to view the work before stating my rates, but I do like to give an estimate beforehand. I've finally just typed up a Word doc that states my hourly rate in a very matter-of-fact manner.

I have noticed, however, that it can be very easy to be manipulated into taking less than you are worth. For instance, a couple of months ago, I began an assignment writing some simple documents for a software company. I had stated my lowest acceptable hourly rate via email. The employer agreed to this readily.

When speaking to the manager on the phone, however, I was asked again to state my desired rate. I reminded him that his had been discussed already via email, and I sensed some hesitation on his end of the line. My heart fluttered around in my chest and I thought to myself, I'm asking too much. I asked if this was still fine, and he suggested that I accept $5 less per hour, because the company was small. I felt my stomach falling into my feet as I agreed.

A few minutes later, I decided to grow a spine. I wrote the manager back and told him that we had agreed upon a base rate, and that was the rate, regardless of the size of his company. I explained that I understood if he needed to find someone who would work for less, but that I simply wasn't going to be able to do the work for less than I had stated.

And he accepted it. I was pretty sure he wouldn't, but he did.

I'm aware that it's only $5 an hour difference, but over the course of the contract, that was an extra $1200 in my pocket (or in this case, towards a loan that I need to pay off).

Negotiate Without Fear

We all need to be aware how much our time and skills are worth (Bob Bly writes extensively about this on his web site, and he has an argument about time versus money that I will pick apart in a few days), but this is particularly important for women. We have not yet reached the point where we feel like we can demand high wages. Part of this is a lack of information - it's hard to know what a job should pay. But this is research that should be performed beforehand, so do that work before you talk to the hiring manager about pay.

The aforementioned Forbes article has some tips on how to negotiate salary.

Here are some of my personal tips for negotiating a good wage:

  1. Practice maintaining eye contact when you talk about money. Don't look away or down. If you are discussing it on the phone, be sure not to sound particularly nervous. It's OK to pause when you are speaking, but don't fill gaps with ums and ahs.
  2. Practice stating your desired wage in the mirror. Don't let your face get all weird on you. Ask a friend to guide you through it, too, so you can say it to a live person.
  3. State your hourly rate or desired income without shame. For example: "I expect to make $25 per hour."
  4. Don't let your voice get all high and squeaky. In fact, make certain that you speak in a low but clear voice. It's probably a male thing, but a deeper voice implies authority.
  5. If the manager winces at you, don't say anything. Maintain eye contact and keep silent. It's their job now to ask if you will take less.
  6. If they do ask if you can take less, ask if your requested wage is above the expected range for the position. If you are feeling ballsy, ask what other people who work in the same position are being paid. They can't tell you about individual employees' pay, but they can tell you the range.
  7. Is the highest end of the pay range pretty close to what you want to make? Is it way too low? Also, never never accept anything below the highest pay rate of the range. Pretend it's not a range at all. Take the highest number, and assume that that is the least amount of money that you can possibly take.
  8. If they give you a range in which the highest pay is close to what you want to make, you have some choices:
  • Saying that you'll go ahead and take the lower rate of pay might make you look like a chump. My favorite way to handle this is to say something like, "Well, I'd like you to consider raising the rate. My skills and experience make me worth every penny. If you can't consider a higher rate for me, perhaps we can discuss bonus schedules or expected pay raises over time."
  • Let them know that you'll think about it. "I'd like to take some time to consider this. Can I get back to you in a couple of hours?". In a way, this is a face-saving move. You can then really think about if you want the job at that pay rate, and if you do, you can write an email expressing your excitement about the firm, and accepting the highest end of the pay range.
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Tannaz Sassooni's picture

this is something that resonates so much with me. i've definitely seen a difference between the ballsiness of male counterparts when it comes to asking for a good salary and my own lack of it. and i've seen them enjoy the fruits of simply asking for more, and it's infuriating! just the image of me saying something like "i expect to make $25 per hour" (the directness, not the number) kind of freaks me out.

but, why do we have this idea that employers will think less of us if we demand what we deserve?

having a set of real-world guidelines and suggestions helps a lot. i have an interview coming up that may make this all very relevant. and hopefully, lucrative!

Guest's picture

This is THE worst part of an interview. Even though i do salary research, make an acceptable range and practice telling a future employer my expected pay... it sure scares me. What am I really afraid of? Probably not getting the job or worse, being laughed at my the interviewer. Of course, if I'm stating a realistic amount and either of those two responses was given, I probably don't want to be working there anyways. Here's what happened at my last job. I gave a reasonable range, of which the lowest number was also what I know I needed to make to make ends meet. The interviewers (and also principals of the small company) told me straight out that that was high. It shouldn't have been, because I had done my research. Maybe it was because they were hoping to pay less or because they were a very small company... who knows. So, they said they would get back to me. A day later they called to offer me the job, but at less than what I had asked. They also said they would consider me for a pay raise within a couple of months. Since I needed the job, I took it. To make this long story short... I got the pay raise in 3 months (a first in their company) after they said I had proved myself to be capable and worth every penny. (A nice thing to hear from an employer.) Also, I found out later, that I was one of the highest paid employees in my category.

Guest's picture

I love your posts, Andrea. This is so true. I deal every day with many women who work on a freelance basis and it's incredible the amount of money they settle for. I think women feel the need to please and be approved of. We are scared to ask for what we deserve because we don't want to disappoint anyone.

It took me a while to learn my lesson, but I really learned it. Now I just go into every new relationship with the attitude that I have nothing to lose. I have my minimum price and it's take it or leave it. I figure if people are unwilling to accept my rate, probably they won't appreciate my services or trust me anyway. So, it works out in the end. I get what I deserve and the client gets good service. We all win!

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks for the kind words, Omini. I agree, women do tend to feel the need to be accepted and approved of. Nothing scares me more than leaving a situation and thinking, "The people back there think I'm a jerk."

I have been in situations where I got laughed at for asking for a certain amount of money. It was in NYC, and I had calculated that to live where I was living, I would need to make about 45K per year. This was in 1999. I was interviewing at an ad agency, and when the woman asked me what I wanted to make, I said, 45K. She laughed outloud and said that the best that I could hope for was 15K. I asked how anyone could possibly live in Manhattan on 15K a year, and she said, "Live with your parents." I explained that that would be a damn long commute, seeing as how my parents lived on the opposite side of the country. She just shrugged, picked up the phone, and I assumed the interview to be over. :)

Also, thanks to Wireless Jobs for including this post in their carnival!

Guest's picture

also - don't be afraid to stand up: lean over to shake their hand and say "Thanks for the interview, but we'd better stop wasting each other's time right there. It looks like you can't afford me after all, have a nice day."

A friend of mine says that her husband has literally pulled that stunt (well, I think it's a stunt, apparently this guy was dead serious) and had it work.

Just like in any negotiation situation, don't forget that your most powerful negotiation tool is that you can get up and walk out and enjoy the rest of your life if you don't like their terms.

Guest's picture

Here's a synopsis/book report of the Babcock & Leschever "Women Don't Ask" I bought read this awhile ago when I began negotiating salaries w/ my employees.


Guest's picture

I've done research on pay for writers -- especially web pages -- and yet, many times when I give a quote -- I hear "Your quote is the highest by far." This in spite of my quoting on the supposed low end! Thankfully, I'm busy enough not to worry about it -- but it's frustrating.

Guest's picture

Right now I'm working temp-to-hire. In less than a month, I should be formally hired for my job. Fortunately, I've already interviewed there for this, so I don't have to reinterview, but I expect the subject of salary will come up. Or I'll have to make it come up! This was helpful and encouraging. I can even refer to previous performance (what I'm doing right now) as a reason why they should pay me x amount. Must now figure out what x amount it. They're paying 27 per hour to my temp agency but I'm only making 15. But that 27 means they don't have to pay me benefits, etc, so I'll have to figure out somewhere in the middle.

Guest's picture

Great advice that could work very nicely when unemployment is low and you have some key competences. This same advice could prove to be too "pushy" when the economy runs out of steam and lay-offs are the flavour of the day.

Guest's picture

Some very good advice here. Freelancers -- women and men -- need to get into their heads the idea that you should NEVER undervalue their work.

One eentsy complaint, regarding this: "...unless you are one of the "conservative" women who believes that places like Smith and Barnard are actually finishing schools and not modern colleges." You do your otherwise great article a big disservice tossing in a lame stereotype like that. I'm conservative, and I know plenty of conservative women, and none of them regard any college as a "finishing school."

Andrea Karim's picture

There were quotations around the word "conservative" for a reason - if I had meant an actual conservative, I would't have put quotes around the word. The quotation marks were intended to make the word seem sarcastic.

I was referring to the (old money, East Coast-bred, pearl-wearing, and superficially "conservative") gals who attend women's colleges with the rather outdated view that college is merely a stepping stone along the way to marriage (sort of like a four-year debutante ball - think Mona Lisa Smile). The strange thing is, despite the fact that women's colleges claim to be about empowering women, we had very little access to information about salary negotiation or job searches.

Our "career center" consisted of several three-ring binders that contained photocopied information about a few DC summer internships with legal firms. And this was in 1999!

Guest's picture

This is great... I would love to read something along the same line... how to collect from late-pay slacker clients ;)

Any tips or advice?

Guest's picture

Great advice for all women! Women should not be afraid to ask for their worth. We are much more valuable than we realized.

Being raised in the Asian culture, I had to learn to "come out of my shell" and become assertive especially if I want to be successful professionally.

Currently, I'm looking for another position (as a Program Analyst in the Washington, DC area) that is more challenging and will provide me with a bigger paycheck (40 - 50% increase). Fortunately, the human resources (HR) called me regarding an opening (my resume was found through Monster.com). When the conversation came to my expected salary, I asked the HR for the salary range. She quoted me with a $75K max. A few minutes later, I called HR and stated that I am not interested unless the position pays $85K + and that I do have other offers on the table. HR stated that they will discuss with the Accounting Manager. I'm assuming the new rate was approved since I just had a phone screening with the hiring manager, which went well and I now have an interview this Friday. Once I've convinced the hiring manager that I am the right person for the job, I will then negotiate a 10% increase.

Guest's picture

I used to be scared of asking for more money. But after a few lucky breaks, I learned I don't need to be. As a woman in a male-dominated field (engineering), I worry about the pay difference and any impressions people might have of women engineers.

When I got my first job post-college, I actually started working for two companies on the same day 20 hours each per week. One, paid $15/hr and the other paid $19/hr. The lower paying job was in my chosen field, so when my boss asked if I could come on full time, I was honest. I told him if he could match the rate of the other company, I would give my two weeks notice to the other company that afternoon. He accepted, so I did.

Later, the same boss started asking when I would buy a car (I biked to work back then), so that I could go to site visits and client meetings. I once again was honest - I told him I couldn't afford car payments and insurance at that time because of huge student loan payments. I told him if he raised my pay to cover the extra costs, I would buy a car within a few months. He accepted, so I did.

If I had accepted the initial $15/hr, and not bargained for a raise for the car, I would be making $20,000 less per year than I am now.

I will still be nervous when asking for raises or more money in the future, but I know that the worst they can do is say no, that's too high. But so far, that hasn't happened yet.

When I worked for a nonprofit that went door to door for donations, we were always told to start asking at the highest level of donations ($300-600), regardless of what we thought the person could give. In my first week, I didn't follow this advice, and was only bringing in $200 in donations per week. I walked up to a house, and a student (or so he looked) opened the door, and he didn't look like he could afford to donate much. So I started at a low level, asking for $60. To my surprise, he said sure, whipped out his wallet, and wrote me a check. A month into the job, I was bringing in $700 in donations per week, because I just went in with confidence and charisma and didn't underestimate anyone.

Lesson learned: ask, with confidence, for more than you think you can get. You'll probably get it.

Guest's picture

Andrea this is an excellent post. Can you give examples of what to say? I am in an email conversation with a new client and need to know how to word that my pay rate is higher than they are offering. I know what they are paying others doing the same work and it is MUCH higher. I have done one project with the company to get a foot in the door and have had a great review internally. Please help.

Andrea Karim's picture

It can be tough to ask for higher pay, but I usually use something along the lines of

"My rate higher than what you are offering, but I believe that my services and experience make me well worth my asking price."


"The market rate is actually a bit higher than what you are offering. I'd like you to consider my going rate, which is X".

This is where references come in handy!

Guest's picture

Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. I am telling everyone I know to come to your site. It's so sad that women have so much power but are fooled to believe that we are powerless by the masses. You rock!!!! Happy Holidays