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‘A Man Wouldn’t’: What Women Need to Know About Negotiating Salary

Topics: Negotiation

Recently, a friend emailed me to say that she had received a job offer from a company she’d been working for on a contract basis. The offer was still taking shape; in a week’s time, she’d have to sit down and have the dreaded salary negotiation discussion. Her question was one that PayScale’s users ask again and again: what’s the magic salary number, the one that will neither cheat the asker nor shut down negotiations entirely? After asking her a few questions about the job and its responsibilities, and factoring in that it was in New York, one of our finest and most expensive cities, I pointed her to PayScale’s Research Center to determine a salary range — and more importantly, a drop-dead number, the salary below which she wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the job. “Don’t take less than that,” I told her. “A man wouldn’t.”

spiral cash 

(Photo Credit: Patrick Hoesly/Flickr)

My friend went into her negotiation with confidence and walked out with the job and the salary she wanted. I congratulated her on her new gig and also on pulling off what’s still no mean feat: getting paid what she’s worth, despite walking up to the negotiating table with two X chromosomes.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Why is it still so hard for women to get paid fairly? The simple answer is that women are less likely than men to negotiate, and also more likely to opt for lower-paying jobs that offer more flexibility. But before we frame that as women’s choice, we need to take a step back and look at the context of those decisions.

1. Women are nervous about negotiating for good reason.

While compiling PayScale’s Salary Negotiation Guide, we learned that 31 percent of women who don’t negotiate salary chose not to do so because they were uncomfortable asking for more money. Only 23 percent of men who didn’t negotiate chose the same answer.

Research suggests, however, that this fear is far from unfounded.

“Discrimination persists in the workplace and it isn’t necessarily intentional or overt, experts on gender and negotiation say,” Tara Siegel Bernard writes at The New York Times. “But it can emerge when women act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine, and when women advocate for themselves, these experts say, some people find it unseemly, if on a subconscious level.”

In 2012, a pair of studies published in Psychology of Women Quarterly tested strategies for overcoming the social and financial penalty women face for attempting to negotiate while female.

In the first study, strategies included “communicating concern for organizational relationships” and “offering a legitimate account for compensation requests.” The former strategy improved the social outcome; the latter improved the financial outcome. Neither strategy, however, improved both outcomes, meaning that, according to this research, women could either have money or social capital, but not both.

In the second study, the researchers “tested two strategies devised to improve female negotiators’ social and negotiation outcomes by explaining why a compensation request is legitimate in relational terms.” These strategies were more effective, if not sufficient to equalize outcomes between men and women attempting to negotiate, but required women to conform to feminine stereotypes.

The bottom line, in other words, is that women still need to be “likeable” in order to get paid closer to what they’re worth.

2. Companies value workers who live to work, not work to live.

Why are there so few female CEOS? The same reason there are fewer women than men working at Facebook and Google, or in STEM fields in general: women who have families still, by and large, wind up doing the bulk of the unpaid domestic labor around the house, which means that they need more flexibility. And flexibility is the one thing that executive and other high-paying jobs don’t offer.

It’s all well and good if you’re Marissa Mayer and can afford an in-office nanny, but for other working women, mothers especially, achieving some sort of work-life balance often means self-selecting into lower-paying jobs that allow for a more flexible schedule.

3. Facts don’t have feelings.

In negotiations, as in life, much is beyond our control. We can’t change the fact that our gender might be perceived in a certain way, or that as a result we might be saddled with expectations about what we’re entitled to ask for, or how we should put things when we do ask. All we can do is work with what we have: an understanding of the obstacles facing women who decide to ask for what they’re worth, and a plan to overcome them.

The best course of action, for both women and men heading into negotiations, is to rely on facts. Do your research, and figure out what’s reasonable for your market, experience, title, and duties. Steer clear of arguments that could potentially seem emotionally biased, such as your own financial needs or the demands of your life outside of work. Determine what you’re worth, and then ask for it.

The best case is built on cold, hard, data — even if we’re expected to be likeable while we present it.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you negotiate? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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Ben SLeahShelly Recent comment authors
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Good article. My comments concern Ben’s experience. First of all, thanks for sharing; I agree with much of what you said. I am a 60-ish female, good at my job, and assertive about what I should be paid. But I’ve experienced push back that I sense has to do with my being female and the 2 managers involved being males older than I am. I sense that they perceive me as “too pushy” for a woman, whereas I believe they… Read more »


Great advice Ben S!

Ben S
Ben S

As my name may indicate I am indeed not a female, but a tactic I used with the job I currently have was when the question came round to money I flipped it back on them and said, “I would rather hear what you think I’m worth (It was my second interview) and we can take it from there” I added in a very blase way “I’m sure it will be a fair reflection of my experience and the role… Read more »

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