Women Do Ask — How to Negotiate for Yourself

Follow up to a panel discussion at #GHC16.

By Ariel Aguilar, An Bui, Vanessa Hernandez, Indu Khosla, Alexandra Riccomini

The authors at GHC16

Men are 4X more likely to negotiate for themselves than women. When women do ask, we ask for 30% less than men. (Women Don’t Ask, 2003)

How is this possible?

The above truths brought together five women in technology, in different stages of our careers, and from different parts of the country.

Our goal is simple:

  1. Educate women on the cost of opting out. (Teaser: it’s astounding.)
  2. Provide actionable negotiation tools and frameworks for you to use
  3. Create an empowering network of women by sharing our own experiences

We recently had the opportunity to speak at the 16th annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston, TX to do just that. Inspired by the hundreds of women who came to our panel, we had to spread the message farther. Below is an attempt to capture the bulk of our panel discussion in writing.

This is our story.

This is for you.

Psychological factors and Sociological constructs

Right from childhood, everything from the toys that attract our attention to the rewarded behaviors via our parents, teachers and mentors are typically gender normative. Girls are taught to play with toys that encourage nurturing, proximity, and role play, while boys are encouraged to have higher mobility, activity and manipulative play (Cherney et al, 2003). In addition, we are primed early about what are gender normative roles in society, including notions of compliance versus independence.

Most women perceive negotiation as a combative process, and hence avoid it. They also fear negative repercussions of being assumed too pushy.

Most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination and deny it even when it is objectively true, and they see that women in general experience it (Annoyingly, this has been known from social psychologist Faye Crosby since 1984). In addition, Women receive less constructive feedback, leaving them on their own for making a constructive argument for promotion — a study of 248 tech performance reviews found a strong gender bias; men received constructive criticism on skills they should develop, whereas women received personality criticism such as “pay attention to your tone”. This is why we find it so important to document your progress and feedback. Take the time to recognize patterns and make your own conclusions.

Cost of not negotiating

Not negotiating your initial salary could cost you more than half a million dollars over the course of your career (Women Don’t Ask, 2003). It could also cost you a loss of other benefits such as an increased number of PTO days.

Costs are not just financial. Women often advance more slowly than equally qualified men because men are more likely than women to ask for prestigious assignments, volunteer for opportunities that will give them more visibility, and pursue raises and promotions that they think they deserve (see Women Don’t Ask Q&A). Especially today, where salary transparency is so foreign (people are more likely to discuss their last sexual encounter than their salary!), it’s difficult to openly discuss these long-term implications.

Salary negotiations for a new position

In her very first job out of college Vanessa was able to negotiate for both a higher base pay as well as a work from home schedule. She phrased her request in these words “I’m ecstatic to have met so many amazing people who work here and can’t wait to join the team. After reviewing the offer, I’d like to begin conversations on how we can increase my base salary.”

Vanessa also wanted to be able to work form home to avoid a daily commute. Since Vanessa was in a position of reevaluation after six months, she used the last five minutes of her monthly one on ones with her manager to touch base on her “work from home” status. She used phrasing such as “I’d highlight one or two of my biggest accomplishments and reaffirm my interest in working from home twice a week.” Every two meetings she would ask if she was on the right path to the 90%+ satisfaction rating needed to qualify for WFH status. She now works from home 3 days a week.

An likes to start the conversation from the first interview. When a recruiter asks her for compensation history, she usually laughs and ask, “What is the budget for this role?” Every role has a budget attached — it’s required to get approval to open the requisition. If they decline to answer, She says, “I’d like to focus on understanding the opportunity here and ensuring I’m appropriately compensated for the value I’m expected to and planning to create.” Then she drills down into the organization’s business situation, its goals, strategy and how this particular opportunity can create value. Throughout the process, she tries to get crisper on the situation and provide stories that illustrate the value she’ve generated in the past for organizations in similar situations. At the end of the process, She always thank the recruiter or hiring manager for the opportunity that’s so exciting that she’s sure they can come to a mutually beneficial agreement in terms of final package.

Salary negotiations mid career

If you wait till your annual review to negotiate your raise, it is already too late. By the time that information is delivered to you it has gone through multiple budget approval processes. Any options and stock you receive would have already gone through a board approval process. Also, your raise has a direct correlation to the rating you would receive in the review. The results of your annual review should NOT be a surprise to you! You should already have had enough conversations with your manager to know exactly where you stand. At most large company 2–3% is often all you get in an annual raise. If you want a, say, 10% raise, then unless you can prove you are paid drastically under market, you will need a promotion as well. If you do not like the numbers, ranking or promotion status on your annual review, the review meeting is the perfect time to start the conversation for the next review cycle. Have an open discussion with your manager stating where you expect yourself to be at the next annual review. Ask them what you need to stop, start and continue doing to get there. Then every few months, check back with your manager to see if you are on track or not.

Ask and look around for salary transparency. You have the right to know when and how your company manages compensation. A number of companies are quite different, so do not assume.

After conversations with management, An typically follow up with an email that summarizes the discussion and says, “Please respond with any feedback if I’m missing anything from our conversation. Otherwise, we will move forward with X, Y, or Z in our agreed upon time frame.” Giving someone an opportunity to respond, but otherwise assuming agreement is a great strategy to use to move conversations forward. It can be seen as a bit aggressive, so this strategy works better with decision makers and other leaders.


If you have done the background work, the actual negotiation becomes straightforward.

The unfortunate truth is women are not only less likely to negotiate, but when they do, they’re less likely to get a raise (See Women in the Workplace 2016). To start, think of your negotiation as a simple equation: x + delta = y + delta. The left side of the equation is what you’ve agreed to do + what you’ve done above and beyond that and the right side is what you were previously compensated and expected additional compensation. For the left side of the equation, I set aside 30 minutes per week just for myself to document: huge accomplishments, what I’ve done well, and what I could have done better. For the huge accomplishments, feel empowered to bring those to your manager’s attention. For the right side of the equation, do your research on what those numbers are to quantify worth for the left hand side of the equation if you’re planning to negotiate base salary. Keep in mind that base salary is one part of what you can negotiate, see 6 crucial benefits to negotiate besides salary.

Glassdoor, Payscale and GetRaised are great resources for salary comparison. When comparing two salaries, Fidelity offers a calculator to compares two offers and determine long term benefits of each. Additionally, Vanessa has found using cost of living calculators helpful when evaluating job offers that may require a relocation. Nerdwallet offers a calculator that helps you determine the salary you’d need to maintain your cost of living by comparing things like price of gas, groceries and rent prices.

Finally, be sure to sit side-by-side for these discussions — body language matters and being side-by-side shows you are working towards a shared goal.

What if the answer is “no”

Level set expectations, as “no” often means “not right now”. Ask questions to understand what internal and external pressures resulted in the current “no.” Find out what your manager would like to see in the next three/six/nine months to get a raise. Continue checking in as you hit goals and ensure current alignment.

Decouple what part of the conversation is leading to “no” (or as An says, “not right now”). Is there a disagreement on the work you’ve done to earn recognition or a disagreement on the compensation? Each leads to a different follow-up conversation. For these follow-ups, be sure to schedule time on calendars to show commitment and seriousness.

Stay focused on the end-goal — the raise or the promotion, and do not take the “no” personally. View a “no” as a growth opportunity. Ask further questions to understand the reasons behind the no. If you were denied a promotion, you can ask “what does it look like, when I am ready for a promotion.” Don’t drop it there, check back with your manager in a few months and ask “how does this look so far? What am I already doing better? What else do I need to do better?”

If something is truly non-negotiable, you always have the option of walking away. A company Indu worked remotely for insisted that she move to work out of a physical office. They had no concerns with her performance, and were fine with her continuing to work for her team in Michigan, but working from Arizona was non-negotiable. She opted to leave the company because she saw this as a sign that the new management was unreasonable, and hence the working conditions would deteriorate in the future. It was better to take the separation package and find a new job.

Strategies and frameworks

Indu likes to frame negotiations as a series of discussions with the other party. A good negotiation isn’t a dramatic, across the table, confrontation. If you have done your research in advance then the table game is not that critical. Negotiations for salary as well as promotion are rarely settled in one conversation. You have to plan in advance what your goal is, and then plan a series of conversations around every milestone of that goal. Think of it as an Agile software project — know your definition of complete, break it down into stories and set a timeline for each. Then execute the plan in a series of conversations. For example, to become a Director, it is necessary to be visible across the organization. When your manager proposes your promotion to a Director level to his peers, nobody should say “who is she and what has she delivered”. If you aim to be a Director in two years, you should spend your first year working to own and deliver some strategic projects. Your conversations this year will need to be about getting those project, and not about the promotion. Start conversations about promotion after you have some strategic deliverables under your belt. Once it looks like that promotion might be forthcoming, start discussing expected raise to go with that. These series of small steps are easier for you to manage, and easier for your manager to handle. Trust is a huge component of promotion negotiations at a higher level. Everybody doesn’t have to be best friends, but you need to be confident that everyone is operating in good faith in a professional manner. If you do not have a level of trust between yourself and your manager, then your first step needs to be either building that trust, or finding a new manager, before you move to the next steps.

Women often negotiate better for others, than for themselves. If you are negotiating flex time so you can spend more time with your children, then keep that focus. Think through who else can really benefit from what you are asking for to not feel like a selfish person. End result is what matters, and if you have to play some mind games with yourself to get there, so be it. Nobody cares about your career as much as you do, so you must own and drive the process.

If you are asking for something drastic, pitching it as a trial program can ease the path. For example, when Indu negotiated to change to a part-time work schedule, she pitched it as 3 month trial. After 3 month trial, both parties would revisit to see if the arrangement was working. There is a fair chance, that after the trail period, the other party can declare the arrangement to be unsatisfactory. Be prepared for your next steps in that scenario.

Vanessa was nervous, scared even, to go after what she wanted. This was her first job, after all. Here she was, about to graduate, with no experience in negotiating. Her late adviser sat her down and reminded her that it is a discussion and as long as she comes prepared, she’d be fine. You would be fighting for myself and you’re worth fighting for.

Negative perception from negotiation

We’re trying to drive change here, where women don’t have to fit a certain prototype and can have the freedom to be rewarded fairly all the time. Until the pay gap closes for all genders and races across disciplines, we’re not there yet.

It is true that if women ask for more, they face push-back. We live in a society where women are cultured to be “nice”. If we are not, not only do we feel guilty but we also get called a “nasty woman”. We are all working to change that. However, it is extremely difficult — how do you strike the balance to live in this world AND change it. Again, do not think of a negotiation as an adversarial process, approach it with empathy for the other party and have an honest, straightforward conversation. I like a simple assertive tone to be most effective opposed to an aggressive, whiny or a passive tone. Make sure you think through the words you will use, have a positive approach. People don’t react well to a surprise ask and that is why I like a series of conversations. You seed the idea in one, move to the next milestone in the next one and give everyone enough time to think through everything. The goal is not to win a battle, but to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement. Do this in a way that is most comfortable to you, in your style of conversation. I smile a lot, not because women are expected to smile, but because smiling starts a virtuous cycle for me. It makes me happy and sets a positive state of mind.

How do personal/career negotiations tie into supplier negotiations?

An has a lot of experience with vendor negotiations. Supplier negotiations are a great training ground to develop negotiation skills. Managing the relationship provides practice in management and collaboration skills. If you don’t get the best price possible, your company pays a little more, but it doesn’t impact your life personally. You get a chance to try again when the contract is up for renewal. Both are exercises in relationship building and value creation with a focus on outcomes. Working with vendors, consultants and cross functional teams is a skill that helps you operationally scale, enabling you to be more effective in less time and gets you to 1+1 = 3. This increases ROI and can help you get raises and promotions.

There are differences in negotiations between internal and external parties. For internal parties, be sure to articulate to other party how they win by supporting your position. They usually like to look good to their team, boss, management, BoD, or VCs. Peer pressure and providing supporting for their initiatives also goes a long way. With external parties, you get a few extra tools. You can look at both contractual obligations and professional relationship influence. Obviously you are looking for the win, but you must make sure to put customers’ and company’s interest first. Use a broader team or other stakeholders to pace the conversation, and try to understand the other parties’ priorities and ensure alignment with your priorities. Concede points which that aren’t critical so you can focus on the points that do.

Techniques for supplier negotiations?

There are four main strategies for deal making, or analytical frameworks for approaching negotiation, each with escalating levels of risk.
1. Bringing new value to the supplier: you can bring down the level of investment required by offering supplier something they value, like data, leads, customer reference, etc. This is usually the easiest to execute on and an easy way to show a win.
2. Changing how you buy: investigating a supplier switch can incentivize a supplier to bring down their prices to stay competitive. Or providing them insight to your purchasing framework can help you get better pricing. This requires a lot of trust and an NDA, and works well in stable industries and companies. Think in terms of packaging, especially for services. 
3. Creating a new supplier: this is a simple buy vs. build calculation. This strategy requires an upfront investment and risk is high if new supplier (i.e. what’s built) fails to execute or deliver.
4. Playing hardball: This is the ultimatum. Not great for long term relationship building. Does not build trust. 
For example, An negotiated with a vendor for an SSL cert install. The initial quote was in the $6k ballpark for the cert and install. The final quote was less than $2k. She used bringing new value to the supplier by providing them with valuable feedback and engaging with the customer success team. She also layered on changing how they buy, by investigating other SSL cert options. By combining those two techniques, She got a very competitive quote by providing a cert from a different provider and using the original vendor for install only. This helped her build my reputation internally with the executive team, so rarely have my projects and requisition requests been denied.

There was a lot more we discussed at #GHC16. Feel free to reach out to any of us on Twitter with additional questions.