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Stop Being Polite. Talk About Your Salary.  

6 minute read

I first negotiated a salary after finding out what a male friend doing a similar job was making — and that it was thousands more (tens of thousands, actually). No, I didn’t get slipped an anonymous note — a la Lilly Ledbetter. I asked, and my colleague told me. When he realized how much less I made, he encouraged me to ask for more.

I’d never asked for more money before. I’d hardly even thought about it. This was journalism, after all — I felt lucky to be employed. But a few weeks later, when I walked into my boss’s office to ask for a promotion, I had that piece of information as a grenade in my back pocket. I didn’t need to use it — but it made me feel more confident to know I could have.

On Tuesday, “Equal Pay Day,” President Obama signed an executive order that, in theory, would make my own outcome an easier reality for millions of women, who still make, on average, 77 cents to every male dollar. That number has been debated and shifts depending on how you account for hours worked, job choice, college major and so forth, but one thing is clear: women don’t negotiate for higher pay. They are one-quarter as likely as men to do so, according to statistics from Carnegie Mellon University.

The Obama directive bans employer retaliation against federal contractors’ employees who discuss their salaries openly. According to a 2011 survey from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly half of all workers in the United States are either banned from talking about their salaries — by contract — or strongly discouraged from doing so by their employers. (I still don’t know if I was breaking a rule by talking to my colleague.)

When Obama signed the executive order Tuesday, he had Lilly Ledbetter — for whom the Equal Pay Act is named — by his side. Ledbetter was a 19-year Goodyear employee who discovered, via an anonymous note, that she was making many thousands less than her male counterparts. “I thought I was earning good pay, I thought they were treating me fairly, but to my shock later on, I found out they were not,” Ledbetter has said. This new presidential directive won’t help the stalled Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier for all workers, not just federal contractors, to prove that their pay is unequal. The legislation unlikely to make it through Congress this week, but that’s all the more reason women should learn the art of asking for better pay.

Negotiating for money sucks. It’s hard, it’s awkward, and it puts everyone at risk for rejection. But Negotiating While Female is a near-impossible feat. No, women are not biologically ordained to be worse negotiators — a new study proves it. And yet women who negotiate are more likely to be disliked, and thus, less likely to be hired. They can’t use a competing outside offer as a tactic, because it’s likely to come off as aggressive. They may even risk — as was the case for one philosophy professor — having a job offer revoked. Even the best advice often requires women to conform to gender stereotypes to get what we want: we must use communal language (“we,” not “I”) and smile while using it (lest you be deemed “pushy” or “aggressive.”)

To top it off, most of us have had ingrained in us, from an early age, that talking about money is impolite. That it’s somehow not a ladylike thing to do. And the reality is that until we’ve achieved gender parity across the board — in hiring, leadership, and salary — it will be viewed that way. And it doesn’t just mean we don’t receive our fair share, sometimes it means the men beside us are actually taking our share: as one former bank executive recently explained, many managers have a limited pool of money to distribute for their department. If a guy asks for more off the bat, they’ll have to give the other person less, and that’s a whole lot easier if that other person doesn’t even ask for more.

“I see it in all my workshops,” says Annie Houle, the national director of the WAGE Project, which runs negotiation trainings on college campuses around the country. “Women are too timid to equate their worth in dollars.”

But simply talking about money with a colleague — or, who knows, maybe even a friendly supervisor — can yield results. It helps determine whether you’re being fairly compensated in the first place. Research from Linda Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University , along with Harvard negotiation expert Hanna Riley Bowles, has shown that gender differences in negotiation outcomes are more likely when there is ambiguity about the appropriate standards. “When I interview executives about their career negotiations, they typically describe conversations with multiple people that occurred over the course of weeks if not months,” says Bowles. “Women need to think strategically about laying the groundwork and planting seeds of support for their negotiation ambitions.

And, it’s worth bearing in mind that most employers don’t actually think — or want to think — they’re paying women at a firm less. That’s why the second part of Obama’s executive order matters too. In addition to allowing federal workers to talk about salaries, federal contractors will be required to hand over data on pay, broken down by race and gender, to the Labor Department. Consider that bit of bureaucracy a kind of public guilting, or at least forced awareness. Experts say that while the new requirements only apply to federal contractors, they might spur companies to look voluntarily at their own staffs.

“Secrecy feeds suspicions, rumors, half-truths,” says Evelyn Murphy, the author of “Why Women Make Less.” “There is no doubt in my mind that once employers enable workers to discuss their compensation among themselves and with those who make salary decisions, whatever inequities exist will likely be adjusted.”

I have one friend — a New York businesswoman — who walked into a salary negotiation and led with the following: “The research shows you’re going to like me less after I negotiate. So I just wanted to get that out of the way.” The tactic won’t work for everyone, but it’s one way of broaching the conversation. Talking about gender bias is key. Because the reality is you’re sure to get nothing if you don’t ever broach the subject at all.


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