Dear Mom: How Do You Negotiate Pay?
Signe Brewster
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Minute-Zero In The Gender Pay Gap

This essay answers the questions women do not ask me about salary negotiations in tech. I teach workshops on tech career management, and though I get public questions all the time like “Why do my interview callbacks always stop after the technical portion?” “Why don’t I ever get considered for promotions to management?” and “Why don’t I ever get headhunted by real recruiters when people with my skillset always seem to be getting huge offers?”, women never ask me the big one up front: “How do I negotiate a better salary when I still want to be known as a team player?”

For an even more detailed explanation of salary negotiation and more information to help women in technology, see the book I just released with Brianna Wu, Angie Chang, Keren Elazari, Katie Cunningham, Kamilah Taylor, Kristin Toth Smith, and Miah Johnson: Women In Tech: Take Your Career To The Next Level With Practical Advice And Inspiring Stories. Here’s some of what we talk about.

I’m startled and a little disappointed that we as technologists don’t take more time to consider and really provide resources for our own to succeed and thrive in the often-confusing world of tech career management.

We need to provide answers to problems like this one: “The hiring manager said he couldn’t offer me any more salary, so I took the job — then found out that everyone else had negotiated higher salaries and I’m being paid 20% less than the others. How do I get more money?”

There are a lot of possible answers to this very common issue in tech. Sometimes it’s related to gender; there are a lot of statistics out there that say that women cannot win in salary negotiation because being seen as unlikable and harsh is professionally penalized. Sometimes a company culture of secrecy around pay leads to huge pay disparities. I learned this from long, painful, personal experience as a tech contractor doing dozens of skilled, short-term tech contracts and hundreds (over a thousand now) of interviews for tech companies. I remember being in a room with a man who didn’t look me in the eyes almost at all, who droned company policy at me, and didn’t look up from his paperwork until he stated the lowball offer he’d been told to give me, and I gave him the response I’ll teach you about below: “That’s a great place to start!” For the first time, he really noticed there was another human in the room, and somewhat taken aback, he politely told me that he didn’t usually get those sorts of questions (the unspoken subtext was “from women”), but that he’d get back to me. A day later, I had an offer that was 10% better than I’d even hoped for.

I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule (also known as Pareto optimality for my fellow academics). If you can solve 80% of the problem in 5 minutes rather than 100% of the problem in six months, choose the first option and constantly iterate for better. These rules won’t solve them all, but you’ll take a giant leap towards your goal salary just by remembering these four common negotiating tactics from recruiters and hiring managers, and preparing a script in advance to counter them. Remember — you’ll be flustered, stressed, and want to make your new company happy, and in the moment, if you don’t have a script you follow, you’ll give in and try to make others happy rather than yourself. Here’s how to make everyone win!

Tactic 1: “We’ll need you to tell us what you’d expect as a salary.”

Hell, no, they don’t. They want you to prove you’re a team player by naming a low number so that you’ll be guaranteed to get the job. Do not name a number first. DO NOT NAME A NUMBER FIRST. NO NAMING OF NUMBERS FIRST. Here’s your script: “The salary you offer me tells me a lot about this company and I think it’s really important for me to have that information so I can compare you with my other offers. (I don’t care if your gee-paw in Oklahoma has offered you $50 to clean out the garage; that’s still another job offer, and everyone has a few of those. It’s none of the negotiator’s business whether you’ll accept those other offers or not.) I’m happy to give you some time; why don’t I follow up with you tomorrow if I haven’t heard your offer by then? I know it can take some time to get the i’s dotted!” You can only pull this off if you mean it and you’re being cheerful, helpful, and totally honest with them. It’s one of the few moves that tells them that you’re in demand, happy to give them time, but absolutely unwilling to offer first. You will lose money in every situation where you name the number first. While there’s tons of math and analyses behind that statement, here’s the simple logic. It is impossible for you to name the correct number. You will either name a number which is higher than theirs, casting you in the role of the unreasonable person, or a number which is lower, meaning you’ll be underpaid the entire time you’re at that company. Always be the person to respond so that you can do this next….

Tactic 2: Never, ever say yes to the first offer.

This moment — the moment where they’re offering you a salary that’s bigger than your college work-study self could ever have imagined…This. Is. Minute. Zero. In. The. Gender. Pay. Gap.

There is a very gendered response to this moment. Men assume all salaries are negotiable, and don’t say yes to the first offer (yes, I know I’m summarizing by gender, but it’s borne out by multiple deep statistical and quantitative studies on how men and women negotiate or do not). Women say thank you. Don’t do it. Here’s your script: “That’s a great place to start!”

I’m not going to give detailed instructions here because this moment is a very, very difficult point for many people — not just women, but men as well can have trouble saying no to the first offer. I want you to believe with every ounce of your being that the person talking to you wants you to work for them much, much more than you want to work for there. Here’s why: it’s true. It costs in excess of $30,000 to find and recruit a single top developer, put them through interview rounds, do onsite evaluations, and I promise you right now, they’re *exhausted*. It’s still hugely expensive even to recruit and hire for non-technical roles; around $18,000 for a project manager in the Seattle area (according to my local top recruiting sources). They don’t want you to leave the room. There’s no one standing outside their door waiting to jump into the hot seat you just vacated. They’ll have weeks of work ahead of them to get another candidate to the same point in interviews and negotiations that you’re at right now. If they can spend an hour or so with you adding some benefits and a pay bump to your contract, they absolutely will, and do so with a sigh of relief.

If you’ve given too much and you named a number first, which they accepted, you can still use the responses to this tactic. Just skip down to negotiating intangibles in Tactic 3.

So, how do you add some nontangible benefits or a pay bump to your salary while still being a team player? Here’s the next tactic:

Tactic 3: “This salary is not negotiable.”

This is often used by companies who have a salary band that is based on some kind of “quantifiable” metric for parsing resumes. Have a Master’s degree? Get a 5% pay bump. Have a CISSP? Get a 5% pay bump. Only a bachelor’s degree? Bottom of the salary band.

First, bullcrap. As the positively magnificent Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent says in Ever After to Cinderella, “Nothing’s final until you’re dead, and even then, I’m *sure* God negotiates.” (I may have a hard time telling villainess from heroine in any movie where evil Anjelica Huston chews scenery.) Just because there’s no getting around the salary band doesn’t mean they don’t want you.

Second, here’s your script: “That’s a great place to start! I understand that you cannot go outside the salary band, so let’s work on finding other ways to get your offer commensurate with my others, because I love this company and I really want to find a way to work here. What can you do in the way of stock options and telecommuting? If you can contractually add two days a week where I don’t have to fight Seattle traffic, we’re all winners!”

Here’s what’s happening here: it’s the same tactic before about being a team player, dressed up in ‘company policy.’ It’s a little more difficult to get around, but I just shared the way you can do so. To use this response effectively, you need to really understand the offer they’re making you and understand the value of what they can offer. I’ll put up with a lot in a company that doesn’t make me leave my house to work with them, because in the Seattle area, traffic is so bad that most people consider any commute that has a bridge in it to be profoundly difficult to manage day-to-day (and let’s not even speak of the 2-hour 7-mile commute from Redmond to Seattle across 1 bridge). This isn’t a random complaint — I get 20–25 hours of my life back (and hugely decreased associated costs like food and transportation) each week if I work remotely rather than commuting, and you should seriously consider that as an option for getting around salary band requirements.

Stock options are another possibility, but negotiating for equity and vested options are beyond the scope of this article. I can write another if there’s enough interest. In a salary band situation, you’ll be trying hard to get other benefits that equate to real cash for you without causing the other person to break company policy. Do you walk/bike to work? Is there a paid parking pass benefit? Ask them to instead give you a transit pass or a velodrome membership (this one works like gangbusters in any company with pretensions of being green or socially conscious). Is there a paid gym membership you know you won’t use? Ask for a childcare credit in that same amount. That’s how you get around the salary band (unless it’s a government job. There’s no negotiating there; take it or leave it.)

Tactic 4: “This is the average market salary rate for people with your job description, so that’s why we’re offering it.”

They may justify it with a reference to salary.com or glassdoor.com. It’s very hard to say no to this; we as humans are very strongly trained to believe in fairness and women are very socialized to value being seen as team players. This negotiator is using a very common and manipulative tactic where you have to justify being unfair to others to get what you want.

Instead, try this: “I’m here and interested in this job because I think your company is extraordinary, not average. I don’t think you want to fill this company with average developers, and I don’t think you’d be offering me this opportunity if you did. Glassdoor has a salary for someone of my abilities and training at [number that is at least 20% more than what they cited you]. Is that a little closer to what the amazing people I’ve met so far have started at?”

Any time someone tries to convince you that you should take an “average” salary, turn the tables on them by forcing them to either say out loud that they think you’re average, or to backtrack and offer you more.

Practice with a partner right now. You need to know how it feels to speak each of these lines before you’re in a pressure-filled situation. It’s going to be very, very hard to say no to someone asking you to say yes, so don’t think of it that way. Humans are built to cooperate with each other, and saying no to someone offering you money will be a very difficult exercise for you. Work it through in advance to make sure you never say no. The moral of this story is that you’re always offering a better option that can make both sides happier, and helping yourself in the process.

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” — Daniele Vare

You can do it! Create an amazing future for yourself in technology!

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