I didn’t realize it, but my inability to negotiate my first salary would hurt my earning potential for years to come. Like many young women fresh out of college, when the person on the phone offered me an amount I accepted it without hesitation. If I could travel back in time, I’d give my 16 year old self the most important piece of career advice anyone ever gave me: make them pay you what you’re worth.
Two months before I graduated from VCU in the spring of 2001, I landed every English major’s wildest dream: a job.
It was an entry-level marketing position with a local printing company. There was no exposed brick, no lofty ceilings with ductwork soaring above rows of iMacs, but they were willing to pay me money if I showed up every day, and that sounded great at a time when the word recession was turning up more often on the morning news.
“How much do you want to make?” my future boss asked me over the phone.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I replied, terrified.
If I ask for too much they won’t give me a job, I thought. But how much is too much?
— ∮∮∮ —
I didn’t realize it, but my inability to negotiate my salary would hurt my earning potential for years to come. Like many young women fresh out of college, when the person on the phone offered me an amount I accepted it without hesitation. It’s a common mistake that no one had ever warned me about.
I grew up knowing about the wage gap. I’d heard the statistics, like how in 2000 a woman made only $0.73 cents for every dollar a man made, but knowing the data didn’t make it seem real to me. The wage gap, I’d been taught, was due to sexism–that made it an issue for activism, not something that was happening on my own pay stubs.
And activism was something that I understood. When I was 16, I saw Gloria Steinem speak at a local university. During an open Q&A session I asked her a question that I naively hoped would inspire a modern renaissance in the women’s-rights movement. “What should I do, as a young woman, to advance the cause of women’s rights?”
Steinem’s response was not what I expected.
“Patronize women-owned businesses,” she told me. “Dentists, doctors, lawyers, accountants. Support women business owners, because many people still discriminate against female professionals.”
I left the auditorium nonplussed. Support women-owned businesses? Really? That’s it? What about taking to the streets? What about tearing down the patriarchy? I wanted to kick over the dominant paradigm, but Steinem wanted to talk about money. My rebellious sixteen-year-old heart was unsatisfied.
Looking back, I’m still disappointed by the advice that she gave me, but for different reasons. In the 16 years since I posed that question, I’ve realized that it’s not discrimination against women-owned businesses that undermines women’s earning power today; it’s our inability to claim and defend our own monetary value. What could I do, as a young woman, to advance the cause of women’s rights? If I could travel back in time, I’d give my 16 year old self the most important piece of career advice anyone ever gave me: make them pay you what you’re worth.
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So what was I worth, at age 22, with a college degree and the skills to build websites? I had no freaking clue, though at the time I figured it couldn’t be very much. This depressed sense of wage entitlement combined with a fear of negotiating are two of the primary reasons women accept less pay than we deserve. Despite all of the time and effort girls put into school–effort that has lead to an astounding level of achievement, including higher college graduation rates and GPAs than those earned by young men–few of us are ever taught how much our talents and skills are worth in the open marketplace.
Instead, years of jumping through hoops in the education system teaches girls that hard work is rewarded with well-deserved success. Study hard for a test? Get an A. Write the best essay? Win the scholarship. Get the highest grades? Become valedictorian. Why should we expect life after college to be any different? Of all the ways our education system is failing its graduates, this seems to me one of the most insidious. Even as women’s success in higher education has surpassed that of men on almost every measurable metric, young women’s average earnings have failed to reach parity (PDF).
A recent Reddit post from a hiring manager about how men and women negotiate their salaries brings the problem into high relief:
Usually we start around $45k for an entry level position. 50% to 60% of the women I interview simply take this offer. It’s insane, I already know I can get authorization for more if you simply refuse. Inversely, almost 90% of the men I interview immediately ask for more upon getting the offer…At the end, most of the women I hire make between 45k and 50k, whereas the men make between 60k and 70k. Even more crazy, they ask for raises far less often, so the disparity only grows.
Ladies, I have news for you: if you didn’t negotiate your current salary, you’re probably getting screwed.
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So, how do you know if you’re making less than you should? Research. Internet salary surveys are a good place to start, but conversations with friends and former co-workers (discussing salaries with current co-workers can get tricky) are even more insightful. Too often, we let anxiety about how it’s “impolite” to talk about money hold us back from understanding our own situation. If your friends don’t want to share exact figures, ballpark ranges should be enough to tell you if you’re earning a salary below market value. Don’t limit yourself to your girl friends either; be sure to talk to your guy friends about how much they’re making.
Once you have a better understanding of what the market is offering, then you can decide whether it’s time to ask for a raise. If you’re terrified of appearing pushy, ungrateful, or of losing your nerve when you ask your boss for money, there are books that will teach you how to play to your own strengths and negotiate in a way that’s natural for you (see suggested reading).
It took many years, and quite a few career ups and downs, before I realized that negotiating my salary is as much a part of my job as the projects and assignments I’m given. I understand now that business owners respect you more, not less, for knowing your value and pushing for what you’re worth. Negotiating is a part of their job, and most of them actually enjoy it. You might not like the back and forth of negotiation, but that short period of discomfort is way better than spending years earning a smaller paycheck because you didn’t speak up.
Once we start recognizing our own value, we can close the wage gap one woman at a time.
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- Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change – Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever
- Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – Lois P. Frankel
- Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth – Mika Brzezinski
Photo by: Eric The Fish (2011)