Money mythbuster: Women don’t negotiate

On average, women earn less than men for the same job and performance level. Popular thought has been that that's because women simply don't ask for more money. Makes sense, right? You have to ask for something in order to receive it.

But there's something about that line of thinking that has never sat well with me.

I asked and did not receive

During college, I worked for almost four years part-time for a hair product distributor. My first job there was answering the phones, but due to my Mac knowledge and Adobe Illustrator skills, I quickly moved from the front desk to working side-by-side with the CEO on marketing projects and event planning.

Upon graduation, my boss scheduled a meeting so we could to talk about my switch to being a full-time, salaried employee. Being no dummy, I figured this would include salary negotiation. So I did some serious homework to prepare. I read countless articles on how to negotiate your salary. I researched the salaries for similar positions in my city. I prepared a one-page document with this information to use during the meeting, just in case I got nervous and forgot the numbers.

The day of the meeting, my boss didn't come into the office. She'd decided to work from home that day. The other boss, her husband, fit me in right before he left for the day (which was right after lunch). So we met in his office. I think I'd read somewhere that you shouldn't throw out a number first, but he insisted. So I said that based on the average salary for the position, my previous experience, etc., I'm asking for $35,000 per year. It was $5,000 more than they offer most new hires. However, I had four years of experience already, and that meant zero training time and zero risk — they already knew I was a good fit and a great employee. Looking back on it, I should have asked for more.

But it wouldn't have changed the outcome. My supporting evidence fell on deaf ears. I got what any new hire would get.

I'm not saying I did everything right during my “negotiation.” I'm sure there was a lot I could've done better. But I also believe 100 percent that in this particular situation, he had a set figure and that was going to be that.

Do women really negotiate less?

Despite popular thought, it turns out that women are asking. A study that came out late last year found no significant difference between men and women when it comes to negotiating for a higher level position or greater compensation during the hiring process.

The Catalyst's report, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? shows some interesting findings:

  • 47 percent of women and 52 percent of men said that they countered by asking for a higher salary.

  • 14 percent of women and 15 percent of men reported that they countered by asking for a higher-level position.

The study did find that there was a big gender difference depending on how many post-MBA jobs someone has: A full 50 percent of men countered their first post-MBA offer by asking for a higher salary, compared to only 31 percent of women.

But after that first post-MBA job, women start negotiating just as frequently as men. Among men and women who had moved on from their first job, 63 percent of women negotiated for increased compensation, compared to 54 percent of men.

So, women are asking. But according to other research, that could hurt them too.

It can hurt to ask

If a woman negotiates her starting salary, the employer might hold it against her. According to a 2006 study, when a woman negotiates her salary, both men and women are less likely to want to work with or hire her. The negative effect was more than 5.5 times greater for women who negotiated than for men.

If all of this research is correct, it's a Catch-22. If you don't negotiate, you're penalized with a smaller salary. If you do negotiate, you're less likely to be hired or your boss won't want to work with you as much (which can affect future raises).

Women have to seek recognition more than men do

I can't end on a damned-if-you-do note, so let's talk about the best course of action. First, I'd never tell someone not to negotiate their salary, male or female. I think we all can agree about that.

Second, for women, the Catalyst study found that career advancement strategies that work for men don't necessarily work for women. The most powerful strategies for women are making achievements known and gaining access to powerful others.

Making achievements known means:

  • Ensuring your manager is aware of your accomplishments.

  • Seeking credit for work done.

  • Requesting additional performance feedback.

  • Asking to be considered for a promotion when you feel it's deserved.

Gaining access to powerful others means:

  • Identifying the most influential people in the company.

  • Seeking introductions to people in the company who can influence your career.

  • Building a network of contacts with important people in the company.

  • Learning how things “really work” inside the company.

  • Pushing to be involved with high-profile projects.

It's worth noting that only “making achievements known” was shown to affect compensation growth. In addition, the study found that changing jobs can negatively impact women's compensation growth, whereas with men, it positively affects compensation growth.

A final word from the researchers

While it's helpful to talk about how women can use this research to help advance their careers, researchers Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva bring up some very important questions. “Why don't men have to do the same?” they ask. “Are men being rewarded without even having to ask? Do women have to raise their hands and seek recognition to an even greater extent than men do to receive the same outcomes?”

I'll leave those questions to you guys. Tell me what you think in the comments…


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Beth
Beth
6 years ago

I’m not sure if women have to push harder to be recognized or if “tooting one’s own horn” just comes more naturally to men? (Or rather, it comes more naturally to certain personality types?) Early on in my career, a supervisor once warned me that I need to speak up more about my achievements if I want to get ahead. (I think that has more to do with my personality type than my gender though.) Maybe it’s because I’m still single, but I have sometimes noticed that when you put people in a social or networking setting, it seems men… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
6 years ago

I negotiated a couple months ago for my salary. It was a promotion and move into a different position within my department. We went back and forth and I ended up short of my desired salary by only a little bit ($1,000 or so). Concurrently, they were hiring a person in the same job role as me, who happens to be a male. They told me they wouldn’t meet my salary request because they couldn’t pay me that much more than him (I think my request was $5,000 more), but I think (without knowing for sure) that I ended up… Read more »

MoneyAhoy
MoneyAhoy
6 years ago
Reply to  Suzanne

The only real way, I think, to get ahead in salary is to change companies. If you are moving up internally, they have so much more control over you that your negotiation power is pretty low. When going outside, you can present more of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude and really mean it. It isn’t uncommon to get a 10%-30% premium for the exact same work just by changing companies…

cybrgeezer
cybrgeezer
6 years ago
Reply to  Suzanne

Many years ago, I worked in a company in which the boss for our division retired. His replacement was a woman from the ranks. Because the women in the office assumed they were making less than the men, because their salaries were so low, they figured now they had an ally in the boss’s office. The new boss said one of her first priorities was an equalization of wages based on similar jobs and experience. Because the women in the office included several part-timers (still in college) as well as some full-timers working about 37.5 hours/week, the average was about… Read more »

amanda
amanda
6 years ago
Reply to  Suzanne

Interesting. I have a new boss who has several times appealed to my sense of “fairness” when discussing business decisions in a really odd way. It’s been bugging me. One has been about a co-worker who asked for 3 weeks leave. I have projects in the pipeline for him to work on and when I voiced this, my boss asked me how I would feel if I needed time off to “recharge” and was being asked to continue working. It was irritating because the issue on the table was how to cover for him with our obligations and has nothing… Read more »

monsterzero
monsterzero
6 years ago

“Are men being rewarded without even having to ask? Do women have to raise their hands and seek recognition to an even greater extent than men do to receive the same outcomes?” Where I work, the answer to both these questions is “Yes.” The owner of our (small) company is obviously biased and has actually told me that men are better workers. I am a manager and can point to numbers that say otherwise, but facts do not convince her. Yes, the owner is a woman. And I’ve heard the same from the male owners of two previous companies that… Read more »

Erin
Erin
6 years ago
Reply to  monsterzero

That is frustrating and disgusting.

Suzanne
Suzanne
6 years ago

I negotiated a couple months ago for my salary. It was a promotion and move into a different position within my department. We went back and forth and I ended up short of my desired salary by only a little bit ($1,000 or so). Concurrently, they were hiring a person in the same job role as me, who happens to be a male. They told me they wouldn’t meet my salary request because they couldn’t pay me that much more than him (I think my request was $5,000 more), but I think (without knowing for sure) that I ended up… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

Most of the places I’ve worked have a set salary in place that doesn’t allow for much or any negotiating (or discriminating). In fact I’m approaching the cap for my position and therefore get less of a percentage raise than I qualify for each year. I was previously in a slightly higher-tiered position but did not like the work so moved laterally to a different area. I got to keep my salary from the old position with the understanding that raises would not necessarily match with what I qualified for (there was a % raise associated with each metric met… Read more »

Kim
Kim
6 years ago

This post makes me feel a lot better. I probably could have negotiated my initial starting salary better (which I always felt bad about), but each year I get significant raises and my boss and I have a great relationship. Who’s to say it would be different if I started out asking for more, but I do feel like I am appropriately compensated for my work.

Cat
Cat
6 years ago

I grew up in a family of aggressive negotiators and as a result I’ve at least attempted to negotiate a higher salary or better benefits for every single job that I’ve ever worked, including my babysitting gigs when I was a teenager. I recently scored a higher position at work. When I broached the subject of salary negotiation, I was reprimanded by our HR department, who informed me that people who negotiate salaries/benefits are “unprofessional” and that I should “Take what I’m offered and be grateful”. I’d had no problem negotiating terms on my previous two positions with the company,… Read more »

MoneyAhoy
MoneyAhoy
6 years ago
Reply to  Cat

If I were in your situation, I would think long and hard about contacting a lawyer. If you can prove discrimination (which it sounds like you can), then I would push it. That is simply unfair and companies should be held accountable for this type of shameful behavior.

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston
6 years ago

“If a woman negotiates her starting salary, the employer might hold it against her. According to a 2006 study, when a woman negotiates her salary, both men and women are less likely to want to work with or hire her.” Wow – that sounds sooo much like the double standard wrt assertiveness. If a man is assertive he’s seen as, well, manly, and a leader. If a woman is assertive she’s seen as a b!tch. I hope that younger people here have a different experience with that since it would give hope that biases are changing, but I’m sure there… Read more »

Kelsey
Kelsey
6 years ago

I’ve definitely learned this lesson the hard way. I recently had to make a job change because my firm just wouldn’t pay me what I was worth. I came in at a low salary because I didn’t have experience in the field when I started, but two years later I was basically running the department for about $10k less than what anyone else was making. I only went on two interviews before I received an offer for the full amount I was asking for, which was a 20% increase over my current position. Guess I should have asked for more…

Dee
Dee
6 years ago

That rings true to my experience. I recently switched companies and negotiated a hefty raise in the process, but have felt some resentment from those who were involved in hiring me.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago

I’ve been lucky. Most of the people I’ve worked for have been pretty progressive and encouraging about this sort of thing. But I know this is a really frustrating issue that affects women as a whole, so I’m glad to see this study covered here. I’m also glad the study includes some strategies that do work for women. I wish we didn’t need a “workaround,” though. I do kind of feel like I have to prove my chops more as a woman. A lot of times, when I write about frugality (not just here), readers have assumed that I’m broke… Read more »

AMW
AMW
6 years ago

I have been self employed for 22 years so it’s been a while since I’ve had a regular “job”. I do, however, also teach at the college level and pay for adjuncts are set when you take the job but I have noticed that I really do have to promote my accomplishments. I have to do it far more than the men in the same situation just to get the recognition to keep the job. I have made it a goal to win an award or be published at least once a year. I don’t see my male counterparts going… Read more »

Nina
Nina
6 years ago

I live in London so not sure if this works universally, but I ALWAYS ask a question that relates to women in any interview. From a female interviewer I ask about their personal experience, do they feel that their gender matters in promotions, do they feel the company has enough women at the top, are there good female role models in the company etc etc. From male interviewers I ask more general questions, ie how many of my potential future team/unit are women, or how many people in the management team are women. This makes the interviewer talk positively about… Read more »

MoneyAhoy
MoneyAhoy
6 years ago
Reply to  Nina

That sounds like a very good strategy Nina. Basically just greasing the skids before putting on the boxing gloves. I like it!

amanda
amanda
6 years ago
Reply to  Nina

Wow. That’s pretty brilliant!

Erin
Erin
6 years ago

SInce it seemed that the recession was starting to wane I decided it was a good year to ask for a raise. I presented proof that I was underpaid for my position in my city. I was still rejected. Just gives you more reason to start looking for something else. It seems like employers would realize that, if they want to keep their employees.

Gousalya
Gousalya
6 years ago

I am a woman, and I had no problems asking and had been successful many times getting what I wanted. The only time I did not get what i wanted was because the cap was set and this is at a bank. I did not think my gender made a difference at any point. However I am concerned that age makes a difference.

partgypsy
partgypsy
6 years ago

In my small amount of experience, I have found this to be true. My first “real job” out of college, I was happily working with a set salary. My job was formalized when the study was expanded to multiple sites, and in that meeting meeting with the company that was funding the study, in addition to training we were told how much each of the sites were being given for our salaries, and we need to let him know if we were not receiving it. It was was 13K more than I was receiving. When I returned to work, I… Read more »

Tiara
Tiara
6 years ago

My experience corresponds with this. First job out of college I was offered a pittance of a salary and had no idea if or how I should negotiate so I didn’t. In a subsequent job, I negotiated for a good increase when going to a new company and the manager involved in hiring me totally resented the salary I had been given and spent the next 6 weeks actively setting me up to get fired, and she succeeded. I now work for a company that treats their employees with respect and have been very happy there for the past 20… Read more »

Kasia
Kasia
6 years ago

I think women need to value themselves more and it’s got nothing to do with being aggressive. I remember my first serious position in a company where I started at the bottom on a low salary. Eighteen months later after proving I was a hard worker and dedicated to the company there was an opportunity to take over a maternity contract, as admin manager. This had been an opportunity to ask for more money. And ask I did. While the boss at the time was apprehensive and gave me arguments as to why such a high salary was not realistic… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
6 years ago

April – My initial thoughts about your story was if you wanted $35K, you should have asked $40K. Then you would have ended up with $35K. Employers expect you to give a higher number than your minimum. Of course better if he gives you the number first. At my last job, I asked for $10K more. They gave me $5K more which was my minimum. I also agree with other commenters that in most cases the only way to get more to is go to another company. That is just the way industries work. I shoot for 15%-20% for every… Read more »

Jon Maroni
Jon Maroni
6 years ago

My wife is currently applying for jobs and much of what you have share here has been true for her. She has felt a perception that if she asks for more in salary there is a huge chance that it will create bitterness on the part of her potential employer. I think even as far as our culture has come, the workforce is still totally unbalanced for women.

Elaine
Elaine
6 years ago

This is an excellent article – thank you. Another glib myth busted. That Catch-22 is frustrating indeed, but at least I have less of a sense of personal failure for the times when I just couldn’t seem to do anything right in the corporate world. Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — the deck IS stacked, and we can’t change that until we recognize it.

imelda
imelda
6 years ago

Thank your for this article. In my first job, at a small start-up, I did my research, and managed to get the boss to give a number first. He said “$40-50,000.” My panicked response was, “that’s great, how about $45,000?” He laughed, understandably, and agreed. I learned from the mistake. At my next job, I asked for a higher salary than offered. They said they couldn’t do anything about it. I let them know I had another offer, I brought up alternative forms of compensation – nothing. At my next job, in a bad economy, I was more modest. I… Read more »

Elaine
Elaine
6 years ago

I just want to add that I don’t think the ubiquitous “you guys” in your final sentence helps anyone. You’re writing an article about women and many of the commenters are women. I know people will say it’s “just” a figure of speech, but the way we talk affects how we think and act. So if you want women to be included and treated fairly, maybe start with not eliminating them from the audience you’re identifying. And women are the worst about this — they use “you guys” as much or more than men.

Divya
Divya
6 years ago

What a wonderful article! This is excellent use of facts, statistics and opinions. It reflects on various aspects. I agree that everyone who works hard deserves a raise. However; when women ask for a raise, they are viewed in a different light. Not only does the boss view the negotiation differently, your coworkers also look at you differently. We are still striving for equality in this regard.

Pat Jennings
Pat Jennings
6 years ago

We often discuss negotiations — salary or otherwise — as if they were an event instead of a process. Your experience at the hair product company is a good example. You point out that when moving to full time your employer would have zero training cost and zero risk. That should translate into more value for you. But those 4 years of experience, familiarity and comfort were benefits you could only get by staying with the company. Leaving the company for a job that paid a little better creates more risk for you – more unknowns. Once you got to… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
6 years ago
Reply to  Pat Jennings

I agree that the anecdote in the article is not exactly a great example of negotiating and failing just because of gender (not to say that the other points in the article are less valid). I’ve had successful negotiations and unsuccessful ones, but I’ve never felt they happened because I’m a woman, but because of other factors – they really didn’t have the money to give, or I had no actual leverage. I think people who look at negotiations as a single event will often find they turn out unsuccessfully. Now it’s possible that women are more likely not to… Read more »

Kimberly
Kimberly
6 years ago

I simply don’t believe that women negotiate as well as men–or anywhere near it. This is something that I’ve been discussing with my friends (men and women) for several years and men are simply socialized differently. There are exceptions (my female friends who are in sales or other areas where they have to negotiate regularly) are very good at it. I question this study, just because the figures are self-reported, and even how men and women define a tough negotiation is often different. I’m a writer who covers women in business, among other things, and several execs and hiring managers… Read more »

Brian
Brian
6 years ago

This is an interesting article because I’d thought this myth to be true. But I have to disagree with the first sentence of the article. From what I’ve seen, women do earn as much or even more than men. I’m not sure whether the thought that women earn less is an outdated notion requiring further research or disclaimers saying it ignores other factors like men being more likely to work longer hours, negotiating better, or more likely to take dangerous jobs.

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