Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Short Rant on Women, Negotiation, Self-Promotion and All That

Several people in my Twitter network tweeted about this Reddit post on how women need to negotiate better in order to get better pay. And then Jeff Atwood, whose Coding Horror blog is pretty darn awesome reading if you are interested in software and tech, pointed out that Clay Shirky had said basically the same thing (and much more) awhile ago, in a fairly famous (infamous? I guess it depends on your perspective) post about why women don't get ahead.  

I've read this same basic advice many, many times. And you know what? It is reasonably good advice.


It makes a whopping big assumption, which has actually been shown to be false, that women could just start doing the same things that men do and they will get the same results as men.  Put simply, it is not at all clear that aggressive negotiation (or self-promotion, or any other of a number of stereotypically male behaviors) are actually the most effective strategy for a woman to employ if she wants to get ahead. In some cases, these behaviors may actually hurt a woman's career.

And that's leaving aside the objection that doing these things requires women to break free of a lifetime's worth of conditioning about how women (and girls) are supposed to behave.

Personally, I am not that great at negotiating my starting salary and the like, and I know it. I try to get better, and I do make the effort every time I have to do it, but I don't go at it as aggressively as many of my male (and some of my female) friends and colleagues do. I can't say whether or not this has hurt me in terms of my career advancement or salary. In every company I have ever worked at since entering the professional world, my salary has followed the same pattern: I am hired in at something close to what I was making previously, and then in my first performance review, I get a sizable raise. I have compared my current salary to the standard range for people in my position with my level of education and experience, and I come out slightly above average. Would I be making more or less if I negotiated aggressively when hired? I don't know, and judging from the research I've read neither does anyone else.

I'm not arguing that we can't all learn from that Reddit post or Clay Shirky's rant- I, for instance, am working on getting over my aversion to self-promotion. But I am saying that it isn't anywhere near as straightforward as those articles make out. This is one area in which our society has well and truly stacked the deck against women- we're damned no matter what we do. So please, let's recognize that when we're doling out advice about how to reach equality. And let's recognize that this is not a problem women can just decide to solve on their own.* The men have some work to do, too.

Unlike the working mom guilt issue, for instance- scroll to the bottom of that post to read about how I think that problem is one we can tackle on our own.


  1. At work, during review time, people would call that edge. It was both a positive and negative trait. I would go from having too much edge to not enough. I am no longer on the fast track so it doesn't come up anymore but you are right, acting Manish is not the only or the best way.

  2. Anonymous4:12 AM

    I have noticed in my field that women get punished for putting themselves forward in ways that are expected of men. I do not like that one bit.

    When a man does it, he's a good economist. When a woman does it she's full of herself. When a man does it, he gets a job at Harvard, when a woman does it, she gets banned from conferences.

    To get ahead in economics it seems like women have to get an older male sponsor to push for them, but younger men can just push for themselves. I do not like that.

    I also gave one of my colleagues a lecture when she said she personally disliked one of our female job candidates because she was "full of herself." It is a fine line that we have to walk in our field, because the modal behavior is arrogant to other folks. But it's only arrogant to economists when a woman does it.

  3. The milliner6:07 AM

    ITA with the 'but' points you outline in your post. It's funny because when I read the Reddit post, I was more interested in hearing the mechanics of the negotiation process and chose to ignore the fact that the post also had the overtone of the concept that if women just did 'x', pay inequality would be solved. Which of course is total BS.

    I don't like negotiating at all. But I have developed a certain ability as I used to work as a buyer and it's part of the job. It was good training ground as it's much less personal than negotiating my salary (or worth) which I find harder for the reasons you mention above. FWIW, DH also hates negotiating and has an even harder time of salary negotiations than I do. Personality type has a lot to do with ease of negotiating as well, I think. We're much more likely to settle on a slightly lower salary or higher cost of something just to buy some peace of mind, and quite frankly we'd just rather be doing other things.

    Also, I think people tend to think of negotiating as a stereotypically male aggressive thing. When really, you can just quietly hold your ground, speak up (ie ask for higher pay) or even stay silent** (best thing I learned about salary negotiation was to force the other person to spit out a salary first by saying 'I'm sure we can come to an agreement' (repeatedly if necessary) when being grilled by someone from HR for salary expectations. Chances are they'll spit out a higher number than you would have.

    ** I realize that we are conditioned, as girls and women, to not do these things. This is what makes my resolve stronger in trying to do this...especially when negotiating for my worth. But I can see why even doing these things can be stressful Or feel insurmountable.

  4. I've already recommended this book here before, so if I may beat that proverbial dead horse one last pitiful time... Walk, don't run, to your local lib and get a copy of "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers" by Dr. Lois P. Frankel. I hate, hate, hate the title - but Frankel gets it. Good luck!

  5. scantee8:20 AM

    There's a fair amount of research that supports what you've said here: when women negotiate aggressively it is often viewed negatively. Damned if you do, damned it you don't, I guess.

    That said, I've been through a few rounds of salary/car negotiations and I'm starting to enjoy it! What's worked me is to plainly state what I want and I why I think my request justified. They can choose to accept it or not but I think having a solid rationale is key for women because it allows us to ride the fine line of having high expectations of ourselves without seeming pushy.

  6. In addition to your already-stated astute points, I'm bothered by the notion that women should just "act like men" to get ahead, and their failure to do so is their own fault. I don't particularly care for aggressive self-promotion, in any gender. It makes sense to me to be confident and aware of your abilities and what you're bringing to the table - and of course you can't let the Man walk on you etc etc. But I'd like to critique the current capitalist model of employer-employee negotiation from the ground up. The whole idea that women should conform to stereotypical male behavior is inherently problematic, even if it did work (which obvs it doesn't).

  7. Jackie6:09 PM

    “In every company I have ever worked at since entering the professional world, my salary has followed the same pattern: I am hired in at something close to what I was making previously, and then in my first performance review, I get a sizable raise. I have compared my current salary to the standard range for people in my position with my level of education and experience, and I come out slightly above average. Would I be making more or less if I negotiated aggressively when hired? I don't know, and judging from the research I've read neither does anyone else.”

    Funny, because the research I’ve read, along with my 20+ yrs experience as an engineer in various places, suggests you would be making more if you started higher. For one, raises are generally viewed by management as percentages of current salary, so that right there would argue that starting higher has benefits that keep on giving well into the future. Can you point me to reliable studies that argue the opposite?

    It sounds to me like people hire you for a rather low or, at best, average salary, and then when you perform above expectations, they reward you by bringing you to slightly higher than average. Nothing wrong with that if you’re fine with it, by the way. But a lot of people in your position have no clue what they should be making and regard that first bump as incredibly generous.

    I agree with your main point about the situation for women being not clear cut. However, if more women become more “aggressive,” that behavior will seem less and less unusual and perhaps soon enough, will no longer be seen as “male” – kind of like women in pants today; nobody bats an eye. I put “aggressive” in quotes because I’ve learned over the years that to be a good negotiator you can be the strong silent type. It has also helped me immensely to learn to see the employer-employee situation as something not at all personal, i.e., it’s a question of competing interests and acceptable compromises, not self-worth. I have learned to fight tooth and nail for what I want and be perfectly friendly and charming the next minute outside the boardroom.

  8. @Jackie, from what I can tell (I am a manager now, too, so I have access to all the salary data, and I also have friends in HR positions at various companies), I was hired below average at my first job, but have been brought in at about the right point for my position at my subsequent jobs, with the possible exception of my third one. However, that third hire occurred when I as laid off and in the midst of a sharp downturn for my entire field- so perhaps the lower salary was a reflection of that and not my negotiating prowess. Also, since my field is cross-disciplinary, the data is hard to interpret, so I can't really say.

    My point was, though, that I also can't say how playing hardball in the initial negotiations would have impacted how I was perceived in the organization, and my future opportunities in the organization. The studies seem to show that for women, the potential downside of being an aggressive negotiator might actually end up setting you back, even though you started out at a better salary. For instance, in that third job I got a big promotion after less than a year, which has drastically changed the rest of my career, essentially putting me on a different track that has proved more lucrative than my initial one would have been. Would I have gotten that promotion if they still had a negative view of me from the negotiation? I don't know. Would they have had a negative view of me if I'd negotiated harder? Again, I don't know.

    Incidentally, I certainly don't think any of this is fair. Women should be able to be assertive without negative consequences. But the fact is, sometimes they will suffer negative consequences if they are seen as too assertive, and just like it is hard to know if your salary is "right", it is hard to know if you've been silently penalized for assertiveness. So it annoys me to be told that I could fix this inequality just by acting more like the men do. I don't think that is the case.

  9. Oh, and I should add- I'm certainly not saying women shouldn't negotiate, and for someone who really has no idea how to do it, that Reddit article was a good starting point. But even if women follow those tips, I'll bet they will end up making less than their male peers, because men have access to a lot of career/compensation advancing strategies that are not really open to women, at least not without risk.

  10. And one more thing... I do always negotiate on a job offer. In all cases except the most recent, that has resulted in a slightly higher salary and/or better time off. My current company wouldn't budge, and now that I'm on the inside and hiring people myself- I know why. It is just one of the quirks of my company.

  11. Anonymous5:15 AM

    This made me think of how I have this internal critic telling me "don't get too big for my britches" full of myself when I self promote, personally or workwise. Which is from my childhood conditioning. But at the same time, they were also pummeling me with "you're so smart" which was loaded with expectations to make the family look good. So a constant weird tension.
    Lisa F.

  12. Hah, I wrote about some of this stuff a while ago, too:

    The nice thing about working for the HUGE company I do, is that salary negotiations are with some HR recruiting person I'll never see again, so I don't hesitate to negotiate a lot. I can see how that would be an issue if you're negotiating with the person you're going to work for, though.

    I HATE the double standard - I've found it to be true in tech as well. On some reviews I'm penalized for being "too quiet" or not speaking up enough, and then I get penalized for "being difficult/aggressive" when I dare to criticize the way a project is handled, even if my criticisms are WAY more professional/tame than the men on our team. Part of why I left my last team, to be honest.

  13. Jackie10:39 AM

    @Cloud: Thanks for your responses. By the way, when I asked, “Can you point me to reliable studies that argue the opposite?”, I wasn’t being difficult or trying to make a point – I really would be interested in seeing/reading/hearing more about these studies. So if any spring to mind (or to that of your readers), please post.

  14. Anonymous12:33 PM

    I don't think anybody disagrees that you end up with higher lifetime salaries when you start out with a higher beginning salary, even if the reason for the beginning salary is somewhat random.

    The point is that women are often penalized for using the same negotiation strategies as men. They can't just do what a man does and get the same outcome. This has been shown in employment (citation: a story I heard on NPR) as well as places like buying a car (article by someone named Ayers).

    Additionally, even when men and women start at the same salaries, women do not increase at the same rates as men. The difference in each raise tends to be small, but it compounds over time.

    Book recommendations: _Lifting a Ton of Feathers._ _Why So Slow?_

  15. Anyone else see that Megan McArdle just wrote a short piece on the same topic? As usual for this sort of piece in the mainstream media, don't read the comments if you don't want to get mad. (Thanks to Fiainros' twitter feed for the heads up on that.)

    @Jackie, @Nicoleandmaggie- there is some research referenced in the article I linked to. Also, if you click through to Clay Shirky's post, one of the comments on the first page has some references.

    I actually don't think it is 100% certain that if you negotiate hard and get a better starting salary that you will end up ahead in the long run (as a woman). At least not in small, gossipy industries like mine. You could get a reputation as "difficult" and find that you can't get hired, for instance. This reputation will follow you from company to company- it is a small world. I think you can negotiate, and maybe even negotiate hard- but you can't do it like the men do it without negative consequences.

    I have no research on that, just my gut feeling based on what I hear people say when they are evaluating candidates.

    Oh, and I'm entering performance review time at my company, and have been asked to write the bulk of my own review. I hate that, because it is a really tricky situation for a woman- another place where you have to find that unmarked line between being a doormat and being too arrogant. I will probably play it safe and err on the side of doormathood, thereby getting a smaller bonus than I might get if I were more aggressive. I do that because if I push too hard and land in arrogantland, I will not only get a worse bonus but sour relationships with senior management. Good times.

  16. Anonymous4:32 AM

    People will end up with higher starting salaries sometimes not because of negotiation but because they start work in a better economy or in a higher paying industry or a larger firm and other random factors. If they don't get laid off, these higher salaries tend to follow them throughout their careers. This is true even for clerical workers (if they start in the oil industry they make more throughout than if they start in the service industry).

    If they do get laid off, they tend to lose a lot, because they're never able to quite recoup that higher than normal salary.

    There's an entire field of research on this in labor economics.

    There are ways in a performance review that one can softly talk oneself up. I would never downplay my accomplishments, but I use lady-like language to discuss them. One thing I do is make it clear that my accomplishments are for the honor and glory of the department rather than just for me. I work hard and am valuable so that we all succeed.

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