Speak Up
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Speak Up

How simply asking can help you get what you want in your career.

Too Accepting?

Recently, Marla, a 44-year-old writer, was discussing a story assignment with an editor with whom she hadn't yet worked. He mentioned a fee for the project and asked if it would do. Not wanting to poison a new relationship, Marla said yes. He again asked if the fee would do. "The fact that he asked again told me that I could (and should) have asked for more," says Marla, who is based in New Orleans.

Marla isn't alone in neglecting to ask for what she wants. In their book, Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Princeton University Press, 2003), authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever report that many women simply don't ask for better job opportunities, higher salaries, promotions -- you name it. Instead, they're likely to accept what's offered.

Men are much more likely to speak up. Case in point: Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, noticed that men graduating with advanced degrees in public policy and management from the university received starting salaries that averaged $4,000 higher than those of female graduates. Examining the issue further, Babcock found that 57 percent of the men had actively negotiated their starting salaries, versus just seven percent of women.

As a result, women fall further behind long term. Babcock and Laschever cite startling statistics: Failing to negotiate your starting salary can mean a loss of income of $500,000 by the time you reach 60. That's because most raises are calculated as a percent of salary. A difference of just several thousand dollars in the salary of a college grad compounds over the decades.

Sense of Self-Worth

In addition to the very real impact on your pocketbook, failing to negotiate can exact a psychological cost as well. Kathleen, a 30-something accountant in Chicago, recalls accepting a promotion within her firm without trying to negotiate the salary. Only later did she discover that the man who previously held the position earned $5,000 more. Initially, the difference didn't bother her. "I figured he must have had more experience or something, and that's why he had gotten more."

Over time, however, as she collaborated with the man (who also had received a promotion) on different projects, Kathleen became frustrated. "He was a nice guy, but no more experienced or competent than I was."

When she asked her boss about the discrepancy, Kathleen was told that her predecessor had more experience that was directly relevant to the position. "This wasn't very convincing. Our work experience had been very similar," she says. Figuring her chances for ever getting much more money were pretty slim, Kathleen left the company about a year later for a similar position with a new company. This time, she did negotiate a significant boost in her salary.

Given the tremendous cost of staying silent, why don't women speak up? For starters, many worry more about maintaining a relationship with the person with whom they're negotiating, than about promoting their own needs.

Girls are socialized to think of others' feelings, says Babcock. "From the day they're born, they're given messages to think about other people."

"Women think they'll hurt the relationship if they ask for what they want," says Andrea Kay, a Cincinnati-based career counselor and author of three books on job hunting. They don't want to make someone angry by asking for something that imposes a cost -- financial or otherwise -- on the other person, adds Kay.

A lack of self-confidence is another reason, says Susan Battley, PsyD, PhD, a leadership psychologist and chief executive officer with Battley Performance Consulting in Stony Brook, New York. "Deep down, they are not truly certain that they are entitled to (the additional money) or sufficiently competent."

At the same time, women can be overly fearful of their request being rejected, says Battley. Because they often take rejection personally -- rather than viewing it as a business decision -- women may avoid making requests that could be turned down, she adds.

Finally, many women worry that they'll come across as pushy if they ask for what they want. "Women think, 'If I ask a direct question, it will make the other person uncomfortable,'" says Carl Robinson, PhD, a consulting psychologist and principal of the Seattle-based Advanced Leadership Consulting.

In fact, asking for what you want can have a result that's just the opposite of what you might think. Debbie, 37, a New York-based professional in the food industry, was interviewing for a new job. When it came time to negotiate salary, she asked for $15,000 more than she had been making at her previous job.

She got it. Later, the woman who interviewed her said she liked the fact that Debbie was "gutsy enough to ask for that number. It made me think she would be just as dynamic on behalf of our company."

New Job Negotiations

You can be a negotiator. It just takes a bit of work and practice. Here are some guidelines that can help when you're in the job market and negotiating salary.

1. Understand the job's responsibilities and the expertise you bring. After all, the immediate goal is to find out if the job will be a fit on both sides.

2. Do some behind-the-scenes homework. Find out the salary range for similar positions. Good sources of information include Web sites like salary.com, trade and professional organizations, and college career centers.

3. Delay salary discussions until you've received an offer, and are confident the position is a good fit for both you and the company. Usually, this won't occur until the second, or even third or fourth interview. If the hiring manager brings it up earlier, let him or her know you still need to learn more about the position before committing to a specific salary. Kay suggests saying something like, "I'm not ready to discuss the salary, as I'd like to learn more about the position."

4. Once you receive an offer, let the hiring manager state the salary range for the position. "He who speaks first loses," says Damian Birkel, a career counselor with Williams, Roberts, Young, Inc., in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

If the interviewer wants you to give a number first, ask what salary range is typically budgeted for the position," says Lisa Barron, assistant professor in the graduate school of management at the University of California in Irvine. That way, you can avoid naming a salary that's lower than what the company was planning to pay.

"That's a difficult position to get out of," Barron adds. While not impossible, it requires some finesse on your part. You could come back to the company with a response similar to this one: "Having given this position more thought, I recognize that I was underselling myself. Based on my qualifications and the way in which I'll meet the company's needs, a better salary for me would be X."

5. Ask for time to think over any offer. Then, don't be afraid to ask for more money. "Many women may not realize all the things in an organization that are negotiable," says Babcock.

Birkel suggests saying something along the lines of, "Thank you for this offer. I'm excited about the opportunity to become part of the team here. However, the salary isn't where I had hoped it would be."

Then, use facts to support your request for more money. Point out the skills you bring to the company, and the going rate for similar positions.

What should you do if the company uses your current salary as a base for their salary offer, while you feel you should get substantially more? Point out the differences in the two positions. Say something like this, suggests Kay: "The salary that I have been making is for an entirely different role. Here, I'll be overseeing a larger staff and will have responsibility for bringing in new customers."

Of course, making unrealistic demands usually doesn't work. When negotiating salary you typically can bump up the offer by five to ten percent, says Birkel. A company is unlikely to double its offer, however.

And even the best negotiators won't get everything they want. You need to know your "bottom line," or the point at which you'll walk away from an offer that doesn't suit you.

Sometimes, offering alternative arrangements can pay off. When Marilyn, a 45-year-old marketing communications specialist, was interviewing for her current position with a large insurance company in Georgia, she wanted to come in at the high end of the salary range, although she wasn't sure they'd place a new person at the top.

They did, however. The company needed an employee who could hit the ground running, and Marilyn's background in journalism and corporate communications assured them she could. In addition, Marilyn told the company she would forego some employee benefits, like health insurance, because she was covered through her husband's employer. "When the offer came in, it was right where I wanted it to be," says Marilyn. "I was elated."

On-the-Job Negotiations

Once you've landed a job, you need to ask for the assignments and promotions you want. "Women tend to look at their relationship within an organization and think 'If I do a good job, the organization will recognize that and reward me,'" says Barron. "Men say, 'If I want more, I better get it and get it now.'"

Babcock offers this example from her research: She noticed that many of the male graduate students in her program at Carnegie Mellon were assigned courses of their own to teach, while the women students were given positions as teaching assistants. When she asked the professor in charge about the reason behind the discrepancy, he noted that the men developed course outlines and asked to teach them. The women simply didn't ask.

So, even if you know what exactly you want -- in terms of plum assignments or promotions, frame your request accordingly:

1. Outline what it is you'd like to do, and why you'd like to do it. For instance, you may decide to join a team that's working on a high-visibility project in order to boost your profile within the company and put you in line for your next promotion.

2. Develop a proposal to present to your boss. Base it on facts and frame it in a win-win way, says Babcock. If you're requesting to be put on a project team, for example, list the skills you would bring to the group. If you're seeking a raise or promotion, remind your boss of your professional accomplishments. If your salary is lower than the market rate, point that out to your boss.

3. Show you're keeping the company's needs in mind. Say that if you join another team, you'll leave your current department short-handed. Offer to train a colleague so that he or she can assume some of your responsibilities.

Mia, a 40-year-old art director from Colorado, wanted to cut down her workweek to four days to build up a freelance photography business. When she presented her case to her boss, Mia said she would continue working with one particularly demanding client. "That was my trump card," she says. "No one else wanted to work with them."

Her boss agreed to her proposal. "As long as they could keep me with this client, they didn't want me to leave," Mia adds.

4. Role-play. If the thought of sitting down with your boss to ask for a promotion or a raise sounds a bit daunting, do a run-through with a colleague or friend in which you present your arguments. Role-playing gives you a chance to become comfortable anticipating and developing solutions to others' objections, says Babcock.

"Asking for what you want is the essential first step that kicks off a negotiation," as Babcock writes. If women hope to ever close the wage gap with men -- currently, women earn about three-fourths of what men do -- deciding to negotiate will be a critical factor.

To be sure, this can require a shift in thinking. You need to recognize your worth in the workplace and become more comfortable acting as your own advocate. You also need to remember that many things -- both in and outside of the work world -- are negotiable.

Whether you're pursuing a new job or freelance assignment, a promotion, or even a better price on the car you're purchasing, negotiating can give a boost to your psyche, your career aspirations and your bank account. "It was really empowering to hear that asking for what I want was seen as a sign of strength," says Debbie. "I got the money, and the reputation of being a good negotiator."