Howard Stern once quipped, “What’s the best thing about having a woman boss?”
His answer: “You make more money than she does!”
It’s funny, but unfortunately true, because most women don’t know how to negotiate for themselves. Even worse, women don’t know that they should—and deserve to—negotiate for themselves.
Nearly every day and in every area of life, there are circumstances where we can and need to negotiate—to articulate, advocate for, and hold out for what we want and what is ours. Negotiations are among the most materially significant conversations we have, and yet women consistently negotiate less often than their male counterparts. Fortunately, negotiation is a skill that can be learned.
One of the main reasons why women don’t negotiate for themselves is that they low-ball their own worth, so they undervalue their own power. Women tend to think, “If that’s all they’re offering me, then that’s what I’m worth.” Not so. It’s the other side’s job to get you as cheaply as they can—even less than you’re worth, if they can. If you cave immediately, you make their day, and they didn’t even have to negotiate at all. It’s your job to up the ante, just like men do.
The first step is an honest and accurate self-assessment of our own value in any transaction. That’s what lets us know that we deserve to negotiate more favorable terms for ourselves. We have to turn off the switch that says “I’m not worth it,” and turn on the switch that says “You go, girl!” In other words, a simple shift in the way a woman sees her own role and her own value can propel a negotiation into a favorable direction for her.
That sets up the second step: viewing the other person in a less deferential and more equitable, peer-to-peer way. You are not less than that person. This is a transaction. They have something you want, and you have something they want.
There are many tactics women can use to counteract fear and inertia, allowing them to negotiate with greater confidence and finesse. Chief among these strategies is being informed and knowing the facts. If you’re negotiating your pay, for example, know the competitive marketplace, the comparable pay for this job, and the contributions and experience you are bringing to the table. Such information will help you sit up a little straighter, believe more in what you’re saying, and advocate for yourself more persuasively.
A trap that sometime deters women—but not men—is hearing a “no” during negotiations. If you hit what sounds like dead-end “no” on pay, for instance, you are well-served to change tactics and do what I call “expanding the pie.” Is there something else you could ask for? Doing your homework about what the other side could possibly have to offer pays off in negotiating power and advantage. Is there a tie-in that would make your current request easier to accept? For example, you could ask for an extra four days of paid time off. Or tuition reimbursement to cover that $4,000 leadership class you’ve had your eye on, which would benefit the employer, too. Or even negotiating to revisit the pay discussion in three months.
Get in the habit of asking expansive questions that can give you the information and insight you need to move a discussion forward. These are questions like, “Can you explain how you arrived at that position?” or “Tell me what’s stopping you from saying ‘yes’” or “How can we make this work for both of us?” These questions buy you time, shed light on the other person’s constraints and circumstances, and help you craft a more creative, tailored deal that suits all parties.
As you navigate deal-making conversations, you may find an opportunity to propose a new kind of work arrangement for yourself. You could negotiate for flextime. You could negotiate for what’s called “phase-back maternity leave,” where you go back to work after regular maternity leave but work fewer hours than full time for a predetermined number of weeks. When negotiating for arrangements like these, know the answers to questions the employer is likely to ask in advance: Why should I go along with you? Where do our competitors sit on this issue? How will we evaluate progress? What are the potential downsides? The more a woman can anticipate such questions and objections, the more successful she’ll be in getting the other side to flex to her needs.
In order to succeed as a negotiator, a woman must tap into her most critical resource: her own network of friends, mentors, supporters, and former co-workers. Talk to people you know. Studies consistently show that women who regularly discuss their goals and strategies with their network of both male and female friends and associates are the most confident negotiators. They are gaining critical access to success stories, cautionary tales, and negotiating styles and techniques. Talking to others not only gives us a sense of what’s possible, but it also helps us form an accurate and honest picture of who we are and what we are worth. And it gives us what I like to call “accountability partners” who will keep us on track and make sure we are asking for what we want.
Ask for what you want and need. If we want our voices to be heard and be part of the decision making that affects us, we need to keep pushing back. Don’t be passive. Be an active partner in your own life. Negotiate!
This essay was written exclusively for The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, in partnership with the Center for American Progress. Download the full report here for FREE from January 12th – January 15th.