Recent news stories have focused on the persistent differential between the salaries paid to men and women for similar work. Such stories are often accompanied by calls for legislation to remedy the disparities. While we do not dispute the presence of sexism in corporate and institutional settings, it is important to point out that many women—with some training and encouragement—could do better in negotiating employment agreements. The wage gap is not just about the careers that women are choosing. It’s about how they are negotiating and that they may be penalized if they do.
Right now, graduating college seniors across the country are facing what is likely to be the first important negotiation of their lives – the terms and conditions of their first job. Many will approach this conversation woefully underprepared. The vast majority, either because they are uncomfortable with the notion of negotiating, or unsure of how to proceed, will simply accept the first offer on the table.
And especially so for women.
Even when men and women had the same majors, there were often gaps in pay, according to a 2012 report, “Graduating to a Pay Gap,” from the American Association of University Women. For example, in the engineering, technology, computer science and social sciences fields, researchers found that women made between 77 percent and 88 percent of what their male colleagues were paid.
A colleague recently told us a story that might help illustrate why this happens. She was an accomplished professional with an MBA from a leading business school. She was asked by the CEO of a company to make a proposal for a consulting assignment and only had a few hours to respond. So she polled friends on Google Chat to get their advice. The range of suggested hourly rates was from $150 to $300. The women were all at the lower end of the range, and the men were at the upper end.
Her curiosity was piqued, and so she asked them the basis for their suggestions. The women were guided by what they thought was “fair.” In contrast, the young men replied, “What’s the most I can ask for and not be perceived as a jerk?”
But there is another aspect of the negotiation disparity that women should consider.
In a study by Professor Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon, men and women asked for raises using identical scripts. People liked the men’s style, but the women were branded as aggressive—unless they gave a smile while they asked, or appeared warm and friendly.
What do we do about the facts noted by Professor Babcock? Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes that if women appear more relational in the discussion, they do better in terms of the results achieved. “They have to signal more relationally than their male counterparts to be heard the same.”
Sheila English, an accomplished businesswoman and public administrator, urges women—for the sake of their own comfort in the negotiation—to rely on the same kind of interpersonal skills with which they are most comfortable in the rest of their lives. Rather than trying to enter the negotiation in a “male style”—all business, assertive, and direct from the get-go—spend time working on building a relationship with the hiring representative. In other words, play to your natural inclinations.
We have recently been conducting salary negotiation workshops for college students and have proposed that they use Budson’s and English’s advice. Here’s one recent report from Allison, a graduate student in the health professions from Tufts University School of Medicine:
I was worried about negotiating because I’m young and don’t have much experience. I learned that, as a woman, I must go about the negotiation differently. Long story short, I was able to get my employer up $14k!!! Sadly, our world can still be quite sexist. After accepting this sad truth, we can still deal with the hand that we, as women, are dealt.
There’s no substitute for being prepared in a job negotiation and for having done your research to know what the market values are for your prospective job. But for women, there is another step in the negotiation process: Knowing how you may be perceived and taking steps to create a better set-up for the discussion.
Farzana Mohamed and Paul Levy are the authors of a new book, How to Negotiate Your First Job.