Men, Women, and Salary Negotiation

“To get ahead in business, women need to speak up, blow their own horns, and always negotiate their salary offers. In other words: act like men.”

Women hear this sort of thing often. I’ve said it myself as well-meaning advice to other, especially younger, women. We heard it from many speakers at the WITI summit, successful women who were presumably giving this advice because it had worked for them. Research shows that it can be effective in getting that raise, VC meeting, promotion, or next job.

There are two problems with women emulating men in this way:

  1. The social rules are different for men and women. A man who is assertive and self-promoting is considered, well, manly. A woman who does the same is more often considered a bitch. Both men and women react negatively to “pushy” women.
  2. Because of Point 1 or for socialized reasons, most women feel uncomfortable behaving this way. As a male friend pointed out, telling women to behave more like men is similar to telling introverts they should behave like extroverts. It implies a judgement that the extroverted or “male” way is the “best” mode of human interaction, and we should all strive to emulate it. For some, this may be harrowingly uncomfortable – for some, it’s downright impossible.

There are reams of advice given on doing business in other cultures: how to fit in, how not to offend, how to negotiate with someone who may see things very differently than you do and may not give the cultural cues that you expect. Such advice stresses understanding and compromise, and we all agree that it would be unproductive and gauche to expect our counterparts from other cultures to adapt entirely to our ways.

So why is it acceptable to demand that women take on the modes of interaction more native to men (or introverts to extroverts)?

I have read articles about how even hirers are frustrated at the way women “leave money on the table”. To paraphrase a piece written by an anonymous hiring manager: “I’m authorized to give a higher starting salary, but only if they ask for it. The women never ask, the men always do.”

The women in these situations say, if asked, that they felt the offer was fair – i.e., they assumed the employer would treat them fairly – and/or they didn’t feel comfortable making a counter request and being perceived as pushy broads before even starting a new job. But if they later learned or guessed that they were paid less than a man (or another woman) for the same job, you can bet they resented the hell out of it, and felt betrayed by their employer.

Avoiding “politics” of this kind is a big motivator for many women to found their own businesses: when you’re the boss, you can ensure that your employees are treated fairly.

My own feeling is: if you (my employer) think my job is worth $n, that’s what you should pay me; I should not have to ask. (If you don’t know what the job is worth, I may not either – why don’t we figure it out together?)

Telling women that we’re leaving money on the table by not asking is blaming the victim. Paying higher salaries to those who merely ask rewards negotiating skills, not professional merit or hard work in a particular role which may have nothing to do with the ability to be an aggressive bargainer.

The same applies to introverts – which, by the way, often describes some of your most valuable staff: programmers. Many male engineers are naive, young, introverted, and/or socially awkward, which puts them in a similar position to women at the bargaining table. They may accept your first offer and not subsequently question their salaries, as long as they can pay the rent.

But, in a hot job market, you’re taking a risk when you pay people less than you can afford and know they’re worth. Your best and brightest (men or women, outgoing or introverted) get job offers every week, and if you’re paying them at the low end of the scale, it’s easy for someone else to make a better offer. Company rules may “discourage” your employees from discussing their salaries with each other*, but a recruiter may be happy to say: “Oh, we pay a lot better for that position.”

If you value an employee and want to keep them, it’s in your best interest to deal with them transparently, honestly, fairly, and in a way that accommodates their individual character and style. If that’s not already part of your company culture and policy, perhaps it’s time to revisit those things and think about what kind of company you want to be, in order to keep your best and brightest, and attract more like them.

* In California, it is no longer legal for companies to prevent or penalize employees discussing their salaries. Furthermore, “California’s newly effective (January 1, 2017) pay equity law indicates that reliance on an individual’s salary history does not justify a pay disparity, but the law does not specifically prohibit employers from soliciting the information on applications.”

Especially in light of a recent (April, 2017) court ruling which seems to undermine that law, the best advice is never to give recruiters any previous salary history. However, it can be difficult to avoid doing so. I have seen at least one company use a web-based form that forces you to put something into a “previous salary” field (I did not experiment with filling that field with zeroes, for example), along with a statement that falsifying any part of the form would end forever your chances of employment with that company.

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