Negotiation: a nightmare for women

A dimly lit waiting area, with a heavy wooden door in the middle. The door is labelled with 13. The image feels dark, foreboding, like the beginning of a nightmare.

Like a bad dream, I can still remember my first real negotiation. I was waiting outside my boss’ office, sitting in an uncomfortable chair that must have been built for a 6 foot tall man – my legs swinging beneath me, because my feet didn’t touch the ground. My palms were sweating. Saliva was collecting under my tongue; I felt like I was going to be sick. My breathing was shallow. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. My throat was constricted; I wasn’t sure I would be able to find my voice.

Those were the physical symptoms.  Inside my head, it was so much worse. Who are you to ask for a raise? You should be grateful for this job. You get to do amazing work, and they pay you; you should pay them. You make good money – what are you complaining about? Do you really deserve this? You go on the internet from time to time during work hours. You sometimes take a longer lunch. It all shakes out in the end. You’re ridiculous to even ask. He’ll probably laugh at you and tell you to get back to work and stop wasting his time.

My own gender pay gap

I had done the math. Some of my (male) colleagues were making up to $15,000 more per year than me. $15k per year adds up fast. In a decade with the organization, that difference would exceed $150k, and would pay for both of my kids to go to college or university. Without negotiation, my salary would simply rise by the annual increase of a few thousand each year. I’d get that no matter what. But unless I initiated a negotiation, I would never see any of that $150k difference.

I came prepared. I had summarized a list of all the accomplishments and deliverables I had executed over the past year. I focused on the things my boss was most proud of, those for which he received the greatest recognition. I also mapped out the math for him – to demonstrate what a steal of a deal he was already getting with me.

And I practiced. I practiced asking for what I thought I deserved. I practiced keeping my voice register low. I practiced breathing calmly to minimize the shake. I practiced in my car on the way to work. I practiced with my teenage girls. I practiced with my friends and my spouse and anyone else who would listen.

The fear of being “not nice”

I practiced because every fibre of my being told me I had no right to ask for a raise. As a woman, I have been taught my whole life that it’s not nice to make people uncomfortable. It’s not nice to put pressure on others. It’s not nice to put yourself first. And initiating a negotiation would do exactly those things.

The greatest fear I had was not that I would walk away with nothing, or that I wouldn’t succeed. It was that I would be laughed at, told that I didn’t deserve the raise, or told that I was not nice for asking. My greatest fear was that I truly was an imposter, and that I was going to get called on it. My greatest fear was that I might just validate all of the self-doubt that I carried in my head.

In good company

I understand why 60% of women will never – as in never ever – negotiate a salary. It’s not just uncomfortable. It brings up fears that are rooted in how we were raised. It brings up the social conditioning that taught us to be kind, polite, and selfless. It exposes a lack of knowledge. Most of us don’t learn how to negotiate – and those of us who go to business school learn tactics that are far too aggressive for us to successfully execute as women. Finally, when it comes to actually defining our counter-offers, we always – always – underestimate our value.

In the end, my boss didn’t even blink. He agreed with everything I said. The negotiation was a success, and led to a $10,000 bump in salary. All that worry, and he didn’t even blink.

In retrospect, I should have asked for more.

A better approach

I believe that negotiation is a skill that can be learned – but that women need to approach it from a different perspective than men. And when we master the skills, we are far more effective at negotiation – because we surprise the other party with how collaborative and successful we can make negotiation feel. This is because we have the magic ingredient of empathy baked into our souls. We just need to know how to use it.

For the past several years, I have been coaching women to negotiate their salary, benefits, and work terms, and I’ve celebrated alongside them as they secure their wins: $20k more than the original offer, $30k in committed education support, the flexibility to work remotely, and technology and office equipment that they chose. Some of my favorite memories of the past few years have been the live and virtual dance parties I’ve held with successful clients after they sign their offers.

Keep learning!

If you are interested in growing your negotiation skills, sign up below to get my weekly newsletter, which features information, education, and learning opportunities that can help you negotiate more effectively. It’s free and you can opt out at any time. In the meantime, you can read more of my blogs on negotiation.

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