'Don't Ask, Don't Get': How to Fix the Gender Gap in Salary Negotiations

Many women have trouble asking for more money at work—but it doesn't have to be that way.

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A decade ago, my grandfather waxed rhapsodic about my first job out of college at a big publishing house in Manhattan, excited by every detail. That is, he was excited, until we got to my paycheck, which bore a paltry number that was irreconcilable with the cost of living in New York.

"Baby, do you know how to ask for the money?" It was simple, direct question, but my answers were not. I spoke of industry standards and perceived meritocracies, all of which he rejected, one after another. Born and raised poor in Detroit, he was a high school drop-out who owned three car dealerships by the time he was my age.

I shrugged his question off as the assumption of a gifted businessman from a different era, but as 2012's year-end reviews wrap up, I am reminded that my grandfather was right, and I was wrong.

Many women don't know how to ask for the money. So many, in fact, that Carnegie Mellon runs a Negotiation Academy for Women co-founded by Linda C. Babcock, a professor of economics. Babcock has also co-authored two books on the subject, Women Don't Ask and Ask For It. In her first book, she offers some troubling statistics:

  • Men initiate negotiations about four times as often as women.
  • When asked to choose a metaphor to describe the negotiation process, women picked "going to the dentist." For comparison, Men chose "winning a ballgame."
  • Women enter negotiations with pessimistic expectations about what wage increases are available, and thus if they do negotiate, they don't ask for much: 30 percent less than men.
  • 20 percent of adult women say they never negotiate at all, even when it may be appropriate.

"If you don't ask, you don't get," said Holly Schroth, who holds a doctorate in social psychology and is a senior lecturer at Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Schroth urges female students to vie for larger bonuses and salary increases and offers several strategies. In her experience, women have proven more successful with off-cycle requests, meaning they seek opportunities to negotiate outside of year-end reviews. The best time, Schroth strongly believes, is in the wake of an achievement. Instead of looking for a new job outside the company, where the same problem may come up again, look within. Women should focus on developing skills, which might mean switching departments internally. Regardless of the means, Schroth argues that listing achievements not only makes a woman's case stronger, but allows her to feel more comfortable in the discussion.

In Schroth's experience, there is one exception to the women-don't-ask-for-money rule: While women will avoid arguing on their own behalf, they strongly advocate for their subordinates.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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