THE first time I negotiated a raise, I had no idea what I was doing. A co-worker whispered that she’d got a slight pay increase, so I took a deep breath and approached my boss to make a case of my own for a raise.
The results were not great. My boss suspected that I had compared notes with a colleague about our pay and reprimanded me for doing so. My stomach dropped and I wanted to cry, but by the end of the conversation I got the raise I’d requested. Women face unique challenges when it comes to negotiating, starting with the fact that we are often viewed as “unlikeable” when we do it. Also, women tend to underestimate their professional value and have been socialised to avoid assertiveness, an essential quality for a successful negotiation. These obstacles make negotiating more difficult, but no less important – which is why you’ve got to be extra prepared. The workplace still isn’t equal. Here’s how to dodge landmines, fight bias and not burn out in the process or pick yourself up off the floor if you do.
Know your worth
Some women play down their confidence to protect themselves from being seen as too demanding, but many women have a tendency to underestimate their worth in the first place. In her book, Secrets of Six-Figure Women, Barbara Stanny lists traits of “under-earners” or women who undervalue their earning potential.
They include a high tolerance for low pay, a willingness to work for free and a belief in the nobility of poverty.
Recognising these traits in myself was the kick in the pants I needed to start negotiating in my own career. I began by building a case for why. A business negotiation isn’t about your personal life or your social standing, it is about business. I needed to come prepared with business data points to prove my worth. Here’s where to begin:
- Quantify your accomplishments
Put a number on your contribution to your workplace. Did you plan three successful events last quarter? Did you train 25 new employees? Did you develop a presentation that is now being used by others? Do your best to quantify the results of your work however you can. If it is possible to put a figure to these accomplishments, do it.
- Bring documentation
Don’t ask your boss to rely on memory or to simply believe that you’re being underpaid when you can bring documentation to prove it. For example, if you believe you’re being paid below the market rate, you might print out salary information from research you’ve done. If you believe you deserve a raise based on merit, you might save an email thread about your last workplace achievement. This documentation is evidence of your value.
- Show improvement
If your boss has given you feedback about your work, use it to show progress. Implement the feedback and improve your skills, then follow up, prepared to make the case for your raise. Agreeable women are compensated less, according to a 2016 study published in the European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology. But when women trade their agreeableness for assertiveness, they can be viewed as unlikeable and demanding. This double bind means it is often hard for women to be assertive, but they also need to be assertive in order to negotiate. So what can you do?
- Stop apologising
“I’m so sorry to bother you.”, “I know budgets are tight, but… ” or “I feel bad asking this”. That kind of language steals the focus from your accomplishments and makes your negotiation personal. If you’re negotiating, remember, you’re not asking for a personal favour. There’s no need to make excuses for your request.
- Do it for the cause
Research has found that women have an easier time negotiating when they’re advocating for other people. So if it helps you to approach asking for a raise by thinking about it as something that will help other women, do it.
- Ask for feedback
This is a strategy I’ve used to negotiate higher freelance rates and improve my job skills at the same time. It involves planning ahead for a few months before you plan to negotiate a rate increase, asking your boss or employer for feedback. What are you doing right in your role? How would they like to see you improve? The goal is to show your employer that you want to do your job better and then implement. Commit to improving, then check back a few months later having made those improvements. I may have been reprimanded after I spoke to my co-worker about my salary, but researchers say salary transparency is an important first step towards closing the wage gap between women and men. Good starting places are websites that collect salary and income information by location and don’t require you to walk up to your co-workers to ask how much they make.
- Ask for something other than money
Compensation goes beyond a salary. You can also negotiate paid time off, remote work days or other benefits. It is important to research your total compensation package so that you know what to expect, but also to be prepared to counter with something other than money. You can always ask about revisiting your rate later.
- Revisit the conversation
Whether you’re rejected for a starting salary or a raise, be prepared to ask for an opportunity to revisit the conversation. Don’t just leave it at that. Ask what skills or milestones you will need to reach to meet your salary goals later and agree on an appropriate time to check back in. If possible, get this in writing.
- Be transparent, but diplomatic
If you know that one of your colleagues is out-earning you, you don’t want to call your employer out directly, but you do want them to know you’re aware of the discrepancy. If your request is rejected, it is perfectly reasonable to say something like: “I’m aware that other workers in my role are earning a higher rate. What can I do in my current role to reach this benchmark?”
Have a Plan B
Sometimes you ask for a raise, you’ve followed all the rules and prepared all the documentation, but the answer is still “no”. But “no” doesn’t mean “never”. So, what now?
This article was first published in The New York Times.