Negotiating Salary

How Much Are You Worth?

Simple strategies for getting top dollar

Mad doesn’t even begin to describe how Keesha  Parsons felt when she found out that she had been passed up for a raise three years ago.

“I was so upset I was seeing stars,” says Parsons, an administrator of trademarks and patents at a Manhattan law firm.

Told that she had hit a salary cap, Parsons spent two weeks building her case: She updated her résumé, researched how much others in New York with the same responsibilities and education were earning, and outlined the new clients she had landed and the additional work she was doing. Then she packaged the information, along with a suggested range for her new salary, and asked her boss to pitch the firm’s decision makers on her behalf.

The response, she says, was quick. The cap was lifted and Parsons received a $15,000 raise.

“The worst they could say is no,” says the 35-year-old Parsons, who credits her law school background and upbringing as an immigrant from Jamaica for having the chutzpah to make the request. “I’d rather ask and see what could happen instead of wondering, ‘What if?’”

If only all salary negotiations had happy endings as Parsons’s did. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Female MBA graduates, on average, are paid $4,600 less in their first job than men, according to a 2010 report by Catalyst, a nonprofit with a focus on women and business. On top of that, it found that men’s salary growth after graduation outpaced women’s—whether or not women had children.

What’s going on? The basic premise is that women just don’t ask. An oft-cited Carnegie Mellon study found that only 7 percent of female MBA graduates had attempted to negotiate their starting salary, compared with 57 percent of their male counterparts. In the Catalyst report, male MBA graduates were more likely than their female classmates to counter their first post-MBA offer by asking for a higher salary. The repercussion is that women start the career ladder at a lower salary rung, making it all the more difficult to catch up and close the gap as they advance.

But there’s more to the disparity than that. Women face a series of land mines when they do want to ask, such as presumptions about how men and women should behave in the workplace. Men are rewarded for being hard charging and refusing to take no for an answer. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be collaborative, nurturing, and less demanding. In a joint study, researchers at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon found that women, more so than men, were penalized for seeking a raise. They concluded that while women want to negotiate, they feel reluctant when they see that doing so could hurt their position.

That’s certainly what Laura Hertzog, director of diversity and equal employment opportunity programs for Cornell University’s ILR  School, has observed. “They are anxious—and correctly sometimes—about being perceived as pushy, even if they’re asking in the same way,” she says. “It’s a delicate balance, to know how hard to push.”

The good news is that women can turn to certain strategies to make negotiating work.

Having someone in your corner, as Parsons did, certainly helps. An advocate—male or female—can speak up on your behalf and may have more sway than you. Hertzog also recommends seeking a female mentor, who can advise about the organization’s inner workings and also offer insight from a woman’s perspective.

“The more you know about what’s normal in that culture, and acceptable in that culture, the more likely you are to make a pitch that goes well,” Hertzog says.

Men can offer tips, too. “It may be interesting to get the male perspective,” suggests Lois Cooper, vice president of diversity and inclusion for Adecco USA, one of the world’s largest staffing and recruiting companies. “See if you need to adjust your strategy. It might be something to try, to get that fresh perspective.”

You should also have a plan. That means arming yourself with data about how much others in your position are making, knowing how much you want, and being ready to show how much you contribute to the organization, as well as how much more you have to offer.

Too often, says Angela Brooks, an executive recruiter at Sanford Rose Associates in San Diego, people go into a meeting expecting to wing it. They also rely on how many years they’ve dedicated to the company as a reason for a raise.

“You’re coming in with a sales pitch for yourself,” she says. “It can’t be about feelings or tenure. It has to be [about] data-driven metrics.”

Also, expect that securing a bump in pay may take more than one meeting with your boss. First you have to lay the groundwork, says Lisa Coleman, Harvard University’s chief diversity officer. Discuss your work performance and any new responsibilities you might take on. If the initial answer is no, ask to revisit your request in a few months, when you have more accomplishments to highlight.

In some cases, your boss may not have the authority to make such decisions. It may be tempting to go over the boss’s head, but you want your boss in your corner. Keep in mind that the company’s goal is to hang onto good talent.

“Appreciate that there are forces beyond the boss’s control,” Brooks says. “You want this to be a collaborative approach. Your boss will be ready to go to bat for you, knowing you have proven yourself and set the stage. Give me goals, and I’ll hit them out of the park.”

Should you, at some point, consider filing a grievance? In reality,  looking for a new and better opportunity may be easier. “There’s nothing wrong with pursuing it,” says Hertzog. “Just know that it can be difficult and unpleasant to go through the process.”

Ultimately, salary parity isn’t simply  about women acquiring sharper negotiating skills.

In its report, Catalyst concluded that though women may do “all the right things”—negotiate their salary, seek out mentors and advocates, trumpet their accomplishments—they are still less likely to advance as far or earn as much as their male colleagues.

Speaking up for yourself is a start. When Parsons, who has also launched a fashion website, My Wardrobe LLC, told her female friends about how she had asked her firm’s decision makers to remove the salary cap and bump up her salary, they were surprised she had gone through with it.

“They looked at me like I was crazy because they wouldn’t be as bold,” she says. “They will complain afterward but they won’t say, ‘That’s not acceptable.’”

But for Parsons, it wasn’t acceptable.

“Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns,” she says. “I am valuable to the company and I deserve more.”  DW



 That’s the first step. In a lab study at Carnegie Mellon, men and women were given $3 for participating in a word game. Nine to one, men requested more money and said $3 wasn’t acceptable.


 It helps to have others in your organization rooting for you and putting in a good word on your behalf. It also helps to have a mentor who can counsel you on the ins and outs of the institution, particularly from a female perspective.


 Find out how much others in your position or with your responsibilities and education are earning. Online sources such as Glassdoor and CareerBuilder, as well as a new partnership between LinkedIn and PayScale, can help with your research. Use this data to back up your request.


 The best opportunity is when you’re offered a new job or during a performance review, as you are discussing your accomplishments and the new responsibilities and skills you’re interested in acquiring. Another is when you are asked to take on a new assignment.




When a prospective employer asks about your current salary, itís tempting to puff up the number. But if youíre caught, you could be seen as untrustworthy, and your offer could be revoked. Instead, point out how much others at your level are making. And keep in mind that you can factor into your salary any bonuses you received or additional freelance or consulting jobs, says Laura Hertzog, Cornellís director of diversity and equal employment opportunity programs.


That is, unless you have one and are prepared to take it.


Itís your responsibility to outline the accomplishments that support your request for a raise. Did you help the company save money? Land a new client or an account? Now is the time to toot your horn.


It could take several conversations to build up to your request, says Lisa Coleman, Harvardís chief diversity officer. You can lead up to it by discussing your performance, your strengths, how you want to grow, and the new responsibilities you are interested in accepting. ìYou will have a difficult road unless youíve set the stage,î Coleman says.


This is business. Feelings shouldnít be part of the process. If your boss lowballs you or says no, understand that there is an underlying business reason. Then present your counter.


Ellen Lee is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area who writes about business, technology, and parenting.


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