Is negotiating right for everyone?
Recently, my friend Ramit and I recorded over two hours of video footage all about negotiation:
We got an overwhelmingly positive response from all kinds of different people – guys, girls, established professionals, college students, people making lots of money, and people making less all found useful ways to apply the principles of negotiation to their lives.
The woman in the video (and it is almost always a woman who says this, even when the material isn’t explicitly aimed at women) just has to point out that women make less money than men, and that women are not very good negotiators (“by nature” is assumed even if not said) and often aren’t shown how to do it…so obviously, you know, that leads to the completely logical conclusion that if women were better negotiators, we wouldn’t have such a problem with wage disparity.
Of course, it’s no accident that the woman in this video is younger than me, recently graduated from Stanford and got 60K/yr at her last, poorly-negotiated job. So if I, or someone else, were to say to her, “YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. LET’S TELL ALL THE WOMEN WHO WORK AT WAL-MART TO NEGOTIATE BETTER SALARIES, AND MAYBE WAL-MART WILL AGREE TO PAY THEM THE SAME AS MEN,” I’m sure she would be genuinely shocked to ponder that, for the vast majority of women, being fresh out of Stanford and needing to pull better than 60K out of your next round of “recruiter” interviews is not, in fact, the main problem.
Wage discrepancy, gender inequality, and labor issues are all very, very complex social issues. So, I can understand how someone can get lost in the overlapping areas, or have trouble understanding how their individual actions fit in with seemingly uncontrollable macro factors.
This person touches on an interesting point: women working low-wage, unskilled retail jobs at Walmart have a hard time negotiating for higher salaries, not just because they don’t know how but also because they may be working in situations where retaliation is a real risk.
Yes, there are plenty of things wrong with society. There’s ongoing discrimination that maintains a wage gap not only between men and women, but also between all sorts of different people. Big companies like Walmart – or really anyone in a position of power – have the ability to discriminate against you and make your life bad.
Why do I encourage a hardworking, but low-paid, Walmart worker to take on risks that are a privilege of rich white collar employees who should be more than satisfied with their generous paychecks? Because it’s not about absolute numbers, it’s about the act of standing up for yourself.
Women earn less than men, especially at the top. In most jobs, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings narrows greatly when you adjust for factors like career path and experience. But at the top of the income scale — jobs paying more than $100,000 — the salary gap between equally qualified men and women is still vast.
Negotiation is an individual’s opportunity in the face of overwhelming macro-social factors like discrimination. As a skill, it’s just as important of a for low-wage workers at Walmart as it is for so-called privileged women earning over six figures.
Negotiation is a way to advocate for yourself, your community, your ideas. Making more at your desk job (though still less than your male coworkers) than you used to make at Walmart doesn’t mean you should sit down, shut up, and be satisfied with your relative good fortune. Now, times may be tough and you may still work at Walmart, but that’s exactly why this is your golden opportunity to do a little better in what might otherwise be rough social conditions.
Let’s explore this commenter’s statements a little more.
The woman in the video (and it is almost always a woman who says this, even when the material isn’t explicitly aimed at women) just has to point out that women make less money than men, and that women are not very good negotiators (“by nature” is assumed even if not said) and often aren’t shown how to do it…
Women do make less money than men.
Women have actually been shown to be better negotiators than men – when negotiating on behalf of their company, group, or community. Women are talented advocates, but women are afraid or unused to being advocates for themselves.
W omen attempt to negotiate for themselves far less than men. A 2002 research study of Masters degree recipients at Carnegie Mellon University revealed that while 51.5% of men negotiated their initial offers, only 12% of women did. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.
There’s no “by nature” implied here. One major reason why women don’t negotiate for themselves is because they don’t know that they can. At my last job, I conducted an informal poll of my young colleagues (assumption here is that young workers are equally inexperienced when it comes to professional tactics like how to negotiate your salary).
When I asked female coworkers in their 20s if they negotiated their salaries, every single woman said “No, I didn’t know you could do that.” When I asked males in their 20s if they negotiated their salaries, every single man said “Yes, of course.”
Mind you, these were all smart, self-assured, non-risk-averse employees at a Silicon Valley start-up.
Since there’s no “women are bad at negotiating by nature” implication here, and since it’s clear from employment data that women negotiate as much as 40% less than men, we can assume that many women can improve their earnings simply by trying to negotiate.
One final note here — as a woman, my statements were definitely aimed at women. I should have been more explicit. To the ladies: go out there and ask for it!
so obviously, you know, that leads to the completely logical conclusion that if women were better negotiators, we wouldn’t have such a problem with wage disparity.
Yes, that’s right.
The reasons we have a wage gap are very complex and plentiful. You can read up on it here. That said, one of the reasons women make less than men is because they don’t negotiate their salaries. And remember, your employer is unlikely to agree to pay you more if you do the same work.
Negotiation – or self-advocacy – doesn’t just refer to the dollar amount on your paycheck. You can ‘ask for it’ in a multitude of ways — higher-value responsibilities, more visibility on the job, a more prestigious title to match your new, high-value responsibilities, and, finally, a pay raise to wash it all down.
Of course, it’s no accident that the woman in this video is younger than me, recently graduated from Stanford and got 60K/yr at her last, poorly-negotiated job.
While it’s convenient to think so, the truth is that Stanford’s not a golden ticket.
To some people, a Stanford degree signals privilege. For me, it was a huge privilege – and an honor – to have been able to attend Stanford, but privilege is no guarantee. No matter how you get there, or who funded you, graduating with a Stanford degree does not guarantee your entry into your dream job, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee you the highest possible salary for your position.
Nearly every one of my coworkers at my first and second jobs had graduated from great universities. That’s literally tens of thousands of golden ticket-holders. Salaries still varied wildly, even among top performers. How could this be? If you do a good job, won’t you get recognized and rewarded?
One of my first lessons as a young person in the job market was that recognition and reward aren’t automatic. People are busy. People who are important enough to make decisions about other people’s salaries are even busier.
Very few employers these days deliberately discriminate against women, employees at either end of the age spectrum, or people of color – especially since it’s illegal to do so – but that doesn’t mean bosses are going to spend their time taking careful inventory of your contributions and calculating out a handsome monetary reward for you to take home. They’re just not going to do that. Unless, of course, you advocate for yourself and bring it to their attention.
YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. LET’S TELL ALL THE WOMEN WHO WORK AT WAL-MART TO NEGOTIATE BETTER SALARIES, AND MAYBE WAL-MART WILL AGREE TO PAY THEM THE SAME AS MEN
Many non-management retail or service jobs technically have non-negotiable wages, but this doesn’t mean people in those jobs can’t advocate for themselves in other ways.
My friend Hillary is a public schoolteacher whose salary is not negotiable, but who didn’t like the way she was being pressured to run her classroom around standardized tests. She advocated for her ideas, successfully negotiated for the diversified curriculum she wanted to teach, and is now starting her own charter school. That last part is an especially inspiring example of what can happen when you decide to take control and ask for what you want, but the point is that it can happen.
My friend Jon works at an hourly job through a temp agency where his wage is definitely non-negotiable. However, he was able to successfully negotiate for flex scheduling that has allowed him more concentrated time to work on his freelance business. Again, anyone can say “but I can’t do that! My case is especially bad because I work at Walmart / my boss hates me / XYZ” but I think it’s important to note that these are fundamentally limiting beliefs that we sometimes use as excuses. While they might be comforting in the short term, they do us no good in the long term.
Negotiating doesn’t mean you storm up to your employer and demand more money. Negotiating is not about alienating others, and it’s not about arguing with them either – it’s two parties working together to achieve an outcome that both can be reasonably happy with.
Some employers like Walmart have a long and well-publicized history of discrimination. We all know it’s not legal to fire someone because they asked for a raise or different hours or time off, and this is the reason why ‘Walmart’ and ‘lawsuit’ are such commonly associated words. And yes, even the women who work at Walmart, who are being paid less than their male coworkers in similar positions, should initiate conversations about their wages. If they don’t want to, because they perceive that there’s a risk of retaliation, then that’s one more unfortunate sign of persistent inequality in our society. Women – including Stanford-educated women – reaching positions of power is a great way to start to change this.
I also think of any “other” minority (not that women are numerically a minority; I suppose you could say “oppressed class”), and what being a job candidate must mean for them. Probably saying “and oh, by the way, I’m aware of the issues and my rights as a _______” is a great way to never get called back — even if they “need” to hire one, they’re not going to want the trouble and expense of one like you.
The retaliation question again. No one wants to get on the bad side of someone who has power over you. However, it’s a huge mistake to think that negotiation is an argument, a demand, or an adversarial interaction. If that’s your attitude going into any kind of negotiation – whether that’s with your boss over your salary or with your spouse over who washes the dishes – you will not get what you want. You may get your boss to give you a raise, or your spouse to wash the dishes, but you’ll also get a fat load of resentment. For that reason, your negotiation will have failed.
A negotiation is a cooperative discussion where two parties try to find common ground. Your employer wants you as an employee and may be willing to pay a little more; you want your job at a higher salary, but may be willing to take a bit less. Focusing on compromise and cooperation while negotiating makes it possible for all parties to walk away satisfied. The act of negotiating in itself doesn’t mean you’re a ‘trouble’ and an ‘expense’ if you know your true value and are simply communicating it — but, if you’re not worth the salary you’re asking for, then that’s when resentment can begin.
I’m sure she would be genuinely shocked to ponder that, for the vast majority of women, being fresh out of Stanford and needing to pull better than 60K out of your next round of “recruiter” interviews is not, in fact, the main problem.
What is the single main problem, then?
Negotiation as a way of life
Why do I care if other people negotiate? Can’t I be happy with my generous salary, my flexible schedule, and the fascinating and glamorous career opportunities that my Stanford degree has opened up for me? The truth is, I am happy with my salary, my schedule, and my career path. But I still care very much about negotiating. The act of negotiating doesn’t simply mean you’re dissatisfied with what you have.
Instead, think of it this way: negotiation is just a fancy word for knowing your own value, understanding the value of where you stand in relation to others, and of speaking up for yourself. In my dream world, every little girl and boy would happily embrace this type of self-advocacy, and nobody would cry out in backlash against those who have succeeded in asking for what they want.
Negotiation is about agency. It’s not just about money, or your job title, or even about getting exactly what you want.
Negotiation is a philosophy of change – it’s believing and seeing proof that every situation is changeable in some way or another.
And every situation is, if you give it a try.
Interested in negotiation or looking for advice? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org