Can Negotiations Close the Wage Gap?

I have been speaking a lot lately about what women can do to close the gender wage gap. Last week, I participated on a panel hosted by the Chicago Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section discussing the empowerment of women attorneys. I was asked to address something I am really passionate about, salary negotiation and equal pay.

There is a lot of research out there that shows that women are less likely to negotiate salary offers than men. And, I am always up for pushing women to negotiate more. At the same time, sitting in front of a group of women attorneys and telling them to negotiate more sounded like it could be a little counter-productive. Of course all of these women negotiate! They do it every day. It’s their job. The problem is that too many times the bar is being set too low.

So, I started out my presentation with all the reasons why we, as professional women, need to start the conversation about our value at work. Instead of just saying “thank you,” we need to point out where our work is adding value and how that value should affect our compensation. We need to ask how our compensation or raise or bonus was determined and point out the accomplishments that are not being recognized. As I got further down on my list of tips for negotiating salary, raises and bonuses, a woman raised her hand.

“I have been negotiating my whole career. I talk about my wins and highlight my accomplishments. I never take the first offer, but I still get less business and less pay than my male colleagues.” She basically looked me in the eye and said my advice is futile.

Her story made me think of a woman who was interviewing for a senior role with a small, publicly traded company. She went into the negotiations with the mindset that this was a smaller company with fewer resources than her previous employers. She saw huge growth potential for the company and decided that she was willing to take less to build something bigger and better. During her interviews, she made clear to the employer that she was willing to take less. When the offer came, it was lower than this woman’s experience warranted, but in line with her expectations. She planned her negotiation and prepared to ask for a piece of the upside she believed she could generate. As part of her negotiation preparation, she went on EDGAR to research the company. Just by chance, she discovered that her male counterpart was paid almost 30% more than what she had been offered. She was hurt, angry and no longer even wanted to negotiate. But she set the expectation during the first interview when she made clear she was willing to take less money than she deserved.

Is negotiating enough to close the wage gap for professional women? No, but if women are expecting to be paid less, then we will get what we expect. (By the way, women are actually very good negotiators. In fact, research shows that they are equal or better than men when negotiating for others.)

Women build discounts into salary negotiations without even realizing it. Too many women have asked me how much they should discount their salary expectation after taking time off to care for their family or because they need some flexibility in terms of hours. Why are we applying a discount before we even know the expectation?

Before the negotiation starts (and every interaction with a prospective employer is a negotiation), we need to assess the value of our work and set a higher expectation for ourselves. None of the attorneys in that audience last week would ever set a low ceiling for their clients. So let’s make sure we don’t set a low ceiling for ourselves. Let’s change our mindset about equal pay and start expecting pay that is equal to effort.

Categories