Negotiating to Close the Pay Gap (Pay Me, Please, Fairly!)

Pay Gap TTA Blog

In the early 2000s, women began to explore a new kind of feminism through publications like Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book titled “Lean In” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2014 book titled “We Should All Be Feminists.”[i] Even some of the pioneers of feminism published new thoughtful writings.  For instance, in 2015, Gloria Steinem published “My Life on the Road,” which gave this new generation of “Lean In” feminists some historical context and appreciation for the journey.

The impact of this neo-feminist movement has had mixed reviews. There is certainly more dialogue about equality. Also, a new generation of men and women are being introduced to the idea of equality for the sexes. That said, a couple of prominent issues facing women persist, including compensation and promotion.

It is estimated that women currently earn 81 cents to every dollar a man earns.[ii] Note, this is a high estimate, with some data suggesting it is as low as 77 cents. This, despite the 1963 United States Equal Pay Act requiring employers to pay equitable wages for the same work irrespective of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.  We also have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2009, allowing victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer.

There are many factors that have an impact on compensation and promotion, including: sexism, implicit bias, and cultural expectations regarding gender roles. That said, the average woman sitting in front of a potential employer is not trying to figure out how to dismantle centuries of antiquated social constructs, she is contemplating how to ask for what she thinks she deserves and actually get compensated fairly.

My traditional thinking on this topic was first challenged during a compensation and benefits training several years ago. The facilitator shared an article about two new employees, a male who received a signing bonus and a female who did not. When the female employee found out, she was very upset. After all, she was just as qualified as her male colleague and willing to work just as hard.

She resented that they’d valued his employment more than hers. She found the courage to share her feelings with the hiring manager and wanted to know why she had not gotten a signing bonus. The hiring manager explained that the company wanted them both. However, he’d requested a signing bonus before accepting the position and she had not. To her credit, she explained that she too wanted a signing bonus and likely learned an important lesson.

Was this story just anecdotal or was there really something to this?

I thought about this story while I was doing research for my book, “Shattering the Glass Ceiling: How to Break through without Breaking Down”[iii]. Here is what I learned.

According to PayScale’s Salary Negotiation Guide, 75% of people who ask for a raise will get it. [iv].Unfortunately, women are four times less likely than men to ask. [v]

According to PayScale’s Salary Negotiation Guide, when it comes to women negotiating their pay:

  • 31% admitted they were uncomfortable negotiating
  • 18% said they did not want to be perceived as pushy
  • 8% worried they would lose their job
  • 7% said they were happy with their salary

Some studies even suggest that women choose not to negotiate because they believe they will appear too aggressive, unpleasant, or viewed negatively. In essence, women are concerned they won’t be “liked.”

Choosing to negotiate will not solve all of the social woes relevant to the pay gap, but it is an important start. This reminds me of one of my favorite Bible verses (Luke 24:41), “You do not have because you do not ask …”

An unwillingness to negotiate can cost women promotions, advancement opportunities, and more than an estimated half a million dollars in earnings over their professional life. [vi]

How do you feel about asking for money? Be honest with yourself. How do you think these feelings affect your ability to negotiate?

I would like to share one of my personal experiences:

I had just been offered a new job. I was extremely excited. This opportunity was too important to rely on my own ability, so I sought the support of a compensation and negotiation coach with Commonquest Consulting.

As expected, the first offer was well below my expectations. Hayward, my negotiations coach, instructed me to ask for a bit more than I thought I actually deserved with specific perquisites (perks), several of which were not really important to me. The employer and I proceeded over the next two weeks with a series of “asks” and “concessions.”

Each time, I conceded an item from my “not really important” list, while requesting consideration for something on my “important” list.

In the spirit of honesty, this was painstaking. Each time I went back to the negotiation table I thought, “They are going to think I am a difficult person to work with and may even withdraw the offer!” My desire to have this job almost made me abort the process.

Hayward continued to send me back to the table with one instruction … “Ask.”  To be clear, these were not run-of-the-mill “asks.” They were strategic asks. An ask based on my current list of requests, wins, and concessions. An ask with a solid SJP (superior justifiable position), the most you can comfortably request and SJR (satisfactory acceptable return), the least you can comfortably accept. [vii]In other words, do not ask for 24-hour access to travel services if your role does not require you to leave your office.

Finally! After consulting with department leadership and getting special HR consideration, they agreed to a highly favorable compensation package.

All my hard work paid off.

I was really excited when I called my coach to share the great news. You can only imagine my amazement when he instructed me NOT to accept!

I felt nauseous.

He told me to make one additional request (note: this item was high on my “important” list). I tried to explain that they had already made special considerations for me and that they would never agree to this request. He simply said, “Ask.”

I thought, they would surely think I was an unreasonable person and they would withdraw the offer.

I decided I would use this experience as an experiment. If they withdrew the offer, I would be disappointed, but I was negotiating from a position of strength as I was already employed. I wanted to see if my gut was right or if my coach was right.

So, I asked.

I told the employer, if they agree to this last request, I would immediately accept without further negotiation.

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone … I held my breath the entire pause. Finally, I heard the voice on the other end of the line say: “Done.”

I could not believe it!

During my first week with the company, they shared that they had reasoned, “If this is how she negotiates with us, consider how valuable she will be when she is negotiating for us.”

This was an eye-opening experience.

I learned an important lesson. Negotiating is not distasteful or unattractive. It is the exact opposite. It is VERY attractive to potential employers. I also learned that negotiating is not only appropriate but expected.

I have respectfully and strategically; yet fiercely and intensely negotiated every opportunity since. As soon as I hear phrases like, “this is beyond what we earmarked,” “this exceeds the average pay for this position’s salary grade,” or my personal favorite, “I can’t approve this, I will have to discuss this with my leadership team” I just smile. It is confirmation that I am on the right track. It is also my cue that I am still one more “ask” away from my best offer for the position.

Do some decline to work with me because of cost? Of course. That just means I was not the best match for the opportunity. Has my overall compensation per project increased? ABSO-FREAKEN-LUTELY!

Because employers expect to get what they are paying for, I also get more responsibilities and more opportunities to demonstrate what I am capable of.  It is a Win-Win!

I asked Hayward, my negotiation coach, to share a few negotiating tips for this article.

Below is what he shared:

  1. Choose to negotiate!
  2. Research the compensation range for the position in your region.
  3. Create a list of must-haves, like-to-haves, and things you can ask for, but you could comfortably live without (these are your concessions).

Note: Don’t focus on “beating” them. It’s about being for you and being for them. Think win-win.

Keep in mind, negotiating is not just about asking. It requires a well-thought-out strategy. What do you know about the organization and its culture? What are reasonable expectations based on the position, industry, and region? A sales job in Tupelo, Mississippi will have a different negotiation range than the exact same position in Manhattan, New York.

It is also important to note that mainstream conventional tactics do not always work for women. For example, an aggressive male may be seen as a “go-getter.” However, aggression can be counterproductive for women. Reducing the aggression does not mean you shouldn’t be assertive or that you should abandon the negotiation process. This may mean negotiating fiercely, but graciously.

Comprehensive instruction about compensation negotiations could consume an entire book – a task I plan to complete in the near future. But, hopefully, this has been enough to spark your interest about the topic, and has challenged you to think about negotiating a little differently than you may have in the past.


[i] Adichie, C. N. (2014). We Should All Be Feminists. New York: Random House LLC
[ii] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012, January 10). “Women’s Earnings as a Percent of Men’s in 2010.” Retrieved from United States Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2012/ted_20120110.htm
[iii] Suggs, G. & Suggs, H. (2017). Shattering the glass ceiling: How to break through without breaking down. St. Charles, IL, BFP Books.
[iv]  Taylor, B. (2015). “Why Women Don’t Negotiate Salary, and What to Do about It.” Retrieved from PayScale: http://www.payscale.com/career-news/2015/02/why-women-don’t-negotiate-salary-and-what-to-do-about-it
[v] Ludden, J. (2011). “Ask for a Raise? Most Women Hesitate.” Retrieved from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133599768/ask-for-a-raise-most-women-hesitate
[vi] Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York Alfred A. Knopf. Ngozi Adichie, C. (2014), We Should All Be Feminists. New York: Random House LLC.
[vii] Levinson, J. C., Smith, M., & Wilson, O.R. (2005). Guerrilla negotiating: Unconventional weapons and tactics to get what you want. New York : John Wiley.