What People Get Wrong When They Talk About Salary Negotiation

A recent workshop I attended taught me how far we have to go to truly understand closing the wage gap.

O n my way out the door one evening, I tell my husband that I’m taking a salary negotiation workshop. “The city of Boston is offering the classes free for women. It’s their attempt to help close the wage gap,” I explain.

My husband cocks his head to the side. “That sounds kind of like victim-blaming.”

I’m not someone who thought much about salary negotiation until recently, when I became a full-time freelance writer. However, I have thought a lot about how I can make more money. I’m a woman with a Master’s degree, and I’ve never felt that I’ve been paid what I am worth. Before I was writing full-time, I was a social worker. The most money I’ve ever made was my annual social worker’s salary of $42,000, which, while nothing to sneeze at, always felt low for my level of education.

My one and only attempt at salary negotiation was a failure, though I didn’t even realize it at the time that I was negotiating. I had two job offers and asked the organization that paid less to match my other offer of $6,000 more per year. They couldn’t do it, so I accepted the higher-paying job.

My one and only attempt at salary negotiation was a failure.

Now that I’m a freelance writer, I face salary negotiation frequently. When a new editor accepts a pitch, I’m usually given a rate. Sometimes I’m happy with the rate, but other times, I need to ask for more money. I also often have to negotiate higher rates from publications I’ve been writing for for a while, or set rates for clients that I do copywriting for. Since I’m constantly trying to figure out the best way to ask for more money without losing a potential job opportunity, I jumped at the chance to take this workshop. I went in hoping to learn how I could negotiate my pay successfully, without feeling guilty about it or undervaluing my work.

And I did learn this . . . to an extent. But I also learned just how far we have to go to properly understand, and contextualize, the salary negotiation discussion itself.

The workshop is held at a community center in my neighborhood of Dorchester. The 10 women attending are an equal mix of white women and women of color, and they range in age from their twenties to their fifties. Some of the women have never negotiated a salary before. Others have tried unsuccessfully and want to learn what they did wrong. The workshop is facilitated by Megan Costello, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Women’s Advancement in Boston. She is confident and exudes the assurance that we, the workshop participants, can be too.

Costello starts the evening by explaining a little about why the city is conducting these workshops. “We decided to take a different approach to closing the wage gap” in Boston, she says, “by talking to individual women in the community.” The city has partnered with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) for this project. Massachusetts women earned 82% of men’s salaries in 2014, according to AAUW data. Costello hopes the workshops will reach 85,000 women in the city of Boston over the next five years. Each workshop has four set goals, which also serves as an outline of what we will cover over the course of the next two hours: know our value, identify a target salary and benefits package, know our strategy, and practice negotiating.

According to the AAUW, in 2014, the median annual earnings in the U.S. for men working full-time was $50,383, while women made $39,621. Costello cites this statistic to drive home the fact that the wage gap is very real.

She goes on to ask why we think the pay gap exists. One woman raises her hand and says, “Hundreds of years of sexism.” Mic drop! As far as I’m concerned, the workshop’s over and we can all go home. Instead, we’re moving on to the first goal of tonight’s workshop: knowing our value.

It’s during this discussion that Costello brings up one of the most damning fallacies about the wage gap: Women could earn as much as men, if only they just tried harder. “You can always get what you want; it’s just a matter of knowing how to get there,” Costello tells us. While I understand the importance of this motivation, the statement reeks of boot-strapping rhetoric, telling us hard work is enough to overcome institutional oppression. I’m also wondering how this kind of logic applies to, say, a woman with little education working a minimum wage job, or an undocumented woman making even less.

The workshop participant who cited entrenched sexism was right in pointing out that the wage gap doesn’t exist because women don’t know how to negotiate, or because we just don’t know our value. That’s despite what Sheryl Sandberg and advocates of “lean in” feminism (and this salary negotiation workshop) would have us believe. As bell hooks writes over at The Feminist Wire, “It almost seems as if Sandberg[‘s “lean in” philosophy] sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality.”

Acting like a man doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be treated like one; I could walk into a room and negotiate my salary the same way a man does, but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll get the raise. However, it might mean that I get fired or punished for being pushy and demanding, which is exactly what could happen to women who assert themselves in the workplace.

I could walk into a room and negotiate my salary the same way a man does, but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll get the raise.

Three women in the workshop share their own experiences of trying to negotiate for raises within their companies and being turned down. All took the advice to “lean in” and ask for what they were worth — and it still didn’t work. There are suggestions as to why this may be the case; one woman wonders if perhaps she wasn’t successful because she let her boss know ahead of time that she wanted to discuss her salary, while another says that she had trouble sticking to her guns when she began to get pushback and was worried she would cry.

Another woman, however, appeared to have done everything “right.” She kept her negotiation focused on what she had done for the company in concrete terms, and spelled out her worth evenly and calmly. She still did not get the raise. It’s worth noting that she is a black woman.

It’s a moment that elucidates the most troubling aspect of the workshop, and indeed of the entire discourse surrounding salary negotiation: a willful lack of acknowledgement about how the gender pay gap disproportionately affects women of color.

The workshop’s workbook has almost an entire page dedicated to the gender pay gap by race, citing how Latina women earn 54% of what white men earn, Black women earn 63%, Asian American women earn 90%, Native American women make 59%, and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women earn 62%. Yet Costello, a white woman, skips right over these facts. Considering that half of the workshop participants are women of color, this strikes me as insensitive at best, and a racial microagression at worst.

This isn’t to say that the workshop isn’t useful. If it gives some women the confidence to ask for more money, and if some of those women actually get it, that’s obviously commendable. I know personally that I’ll feel more prepared to negotiate pay in the future, and I did learn some relevant tips, like the importance of never disclosing salary history on a job application, since this often traps women in a cycle of lower-paying jobs (Costello suggests saying instead, “I don’t believe my salary history is relevant to this current position”).

There’s a willful lack of acknowledgement about how the gender pay gap disproportionately affects women of color.

But I also recognize that I’m who this kind of empowerment is designed for — white, educated, middle-class. I have the privilege to lean in.

At the end of the class, we go around and share what we’ve learned. One woman reflects on her experience as a black woman and an immigrant, saying that as a college-educated, American-raised woman, it’s still hard to separate herself from her immigrant mother’s philosophy of putting your head down and working. And being grateful that you have any job at all.

Costello nods and says, “I think all of us here, all women, can relate to feeling like we need to just keep our heads down.” In this type of feminism that is run by the empowerment elite, there’s no room for nuanced discussions of privilege or examinations of the ways in which our experiences differ based on factors such as race and immigration status.

The solution being offered at Boston’s free negotiating classes is one-size fits all. Unfortunately, as the workshop highlighted, the problem is anything but.

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