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Money mythbuster: Women don't negotiate

This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

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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