The Cost Of Asking: What Happens When Women Negotiate?

Workin’ Girl

A few months ago, I had a breakthrough. After a promotion led to me having a completely different supervisor, what was once a five-year plan to transition out of the organization I was working at, turned into five-month plan. It's a scary point in my life that I haven't found myself at before: I'm not leaving a job because I want better pay or a higher position, I want to leave simply because I'm unhappy.


Being thrust back into the job search made me come clean about what I'm lacking as a mid-level professional, and one thing stood out in particular: I'm a horrible negotiator.

It's something I know I need to work on. I'm the kind of person that's happy to have health insurance and being able to maintain my Netflix subscription. But as I get older, and now that I have a family of my own, I'm realizing I need to fight for what's fair when it comes to my salary, because the truth is most companies will aim to get away with compensating you as little as possible.

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Women are often told that a closed mouth doesn't get fed, and they need to negotiate their worth, but are employers insulted when they actually do?

Turns out my hesitation with negotiating might be completely justified, as Maria Konnikova pointed out in her New Yorker essay "Lean Out: The Dangers For Women Who Negotiate." She refers to negotiation where gender is involved as “a careful balancing act," and looked at a study on how gender affects negotiation done by Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program. Bowles collaborated with Carnegie Mellon for a series of studies that found that women were penalized far more than men when they asked for higher salaries.

It gets worse.

The studies also found that women were just as guilty of penalizing other women who didn't take what was initially offered, but they also penalized the men just as much. Bowles says, “They just didn't seem to like seeing someone ask for more money."

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In a follow-up study, Bowles asked participants to switch roles so that the employer was now the prospective employee. When she asked the women were they comfortable negotiating their salaries in the same situations, the women responded that they weren't and in fact were afraid the conversation would turn against them if they did. Bowles came to the conclusion that once any conversation turns to money, regardless of what pronoun you prefer, employers just plain don't like having to pay out money they wouldn't have to if you just shut up and accepted their first offer. But women are on the losing end because men were less likely to be looked at unfavorably for demanding more pay, in fact, it was almost expected.

"Lean Out" also revealed that employers looked for different values in women than they did men. In a study done by Rutgers, researcher Julie Phelan discovered that during the interview process employers focused more on women's social skills than their professional background, where interviews with men revolved solely around qualifications. Sorry ladies, it appears that Mean Girls didn't just end in 2004, getting a job is apparently a popularity contest too.

So does this mean that we should just shut up and be thankful for whatever is thrown our way during the job hunt? According to Katie Donovan, that's exactly what we should do, well at least the keeping our mouths shut part. The founder of consulting agency, Equal Pay Negotiations says that women give themselves an advantage when they learn to handle a little awkward silence. "In sales, this is something that people are constantly trained in," she says in the article "A Woman's Most Powerful Negotiation Tool? Silence."

"You need to stop selling against yourself. That's what happens when you keep talking. You need to ask a question, then shut up and give the other person a chance to respond."

Donovan says it helps to ask questions and listen, give prospective employers a chance to wonder where your head is at and yourself a chance to evaluate if this is the place you really want to be.

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She also suggests thinking of negotiations as more than what your direct deposit is going to look like. Perks are just as important as pay. Maybe the organization genuinely just doesn't have the money to give, but take into consideration things like a company car, working from home or having a flexible schedule. These things can be negotiated as well. Donovan also warns women to not be blinded by the B.S. “Employers have many savvy ways to convince you not to negotiate. Sometimes, it will come across as flattery: 'You're such a great candidate that I didn't want to bother with negotiating—so I went to bat and got you the highest salary you could possibly start with.'"

She warns you to do your research. Search what professionals in your area are making in their positions with sites like Salary.com. Be ready to present why your background is worth what you're asking and role-play situations until negotiating doesn't seem so foreign.

What I learned most from researching the art of negotiation is how different men are socialized from women. Boys are often raised to be confident and to question authority when they feel taken advantage of, while girls are often raised to be respectful and follow the rules. Unfortunately this is hurting us where it literally counts the most: our pockets.

It's about being a smart businesswoman and any employer that can't recognize the value in that, probably isn't one you want to work for.

I'm still working on the confidence to counter-offer, and now that I think of it, a dress code that includes graphic tee Tuesdays would be pretty dope too, but one thing is for sure: my well-being at work is something I refuse to ever compromise on again.

Have you ever negotiated a good deal or were you and your demands shown to the door?

Originally published May 8, 2017

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