Expert advice to help women use their strengths to negotiate that pay increase.
When actresses like Robin Wright made the news last year for demanding to be paid equally — equally, at least, to her male co-star (whose name by this point we need not mention) — few people were surprised. Women being paid less than their male counterparts across all professions, not just acting, is nothing new.
But the equal pay stories you probably don’t hear about as often are the ones that happen in our home towns, from manual labor to desk jobs. And, oddly, the more educated or qualified a woman is for a senior position, the stronger this pay prejudice becomes. “Women with bachelor’s degrees or higher earned 76 percent of their male peers in that group in 2014, according to labor department statistics. Women with less than a high-school diploma working full-time earned 79 percent of what their male peers earned.”
The Wall Street Journal suggests that much of the gender pay gap in white-collar industries can be blamed on the time women take off to be with families: “Many white-collar jobs give substantially larger financial rewards to those logging the longest hours and who job-hop often, phenomena that limit white-collar women who pull back for child-rearing.”
While this certainly plays a role, it’s far from the only reason. When considering examples like Wright’s pay inequality on the Netflix series House of Cards, you have to wonder how often women are paid less simply because the powers-that-be think we won’t find out, or we’ll be fine with it, or that we won’t ask for more or make a fuss if we’re low-balled. (The reverse logic is that men, who would make a stink and ask for more, should be offered a better number to begin with.)
Women frequently getting offered lower numbers than men puts female employees in a position where it’s even more crucial to speak up about money. But many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of asking for more — especially women who might feel like they are being given other “mommy perks” like flex time or the ability to work from home.
The key is remembering that a job well done or years of dedication to a company and improving its bottom line deserves proper compensation. When you deserve it, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for more money. When it comes to making the ask, however, you need to be more than just worthy of a raise, you need to show your worth, and know how to ask.
Too often, though, advice for women in business who want to ask for a raise sounds like this: “Do it like a man would.” And while there is some wisdom in that, what’s the point of being a strong, successful woman if we have to act like a man? Doesn’t that just assume that being a woman is somehow less than? Instead, we’d do well to realize that as women, we have our own strengths and gifts that we should put to work when negotiating a raise.
Lesa Engelthaler, a senior associate at Victory Search Group, an executive search firm, shared her advice on how women should ask for a raise and negotiate pay. We happened to catch up with her while she was visiting family — which includes three generations of working women. So Engelthaler ran our questions past these women, too — including Rachel Anderson, a case manager at a children’s home; Beth Cheshier, a teacher; and Jeannette Shackelford, a retired executive assistant. (Lesa also ran our questions past her executive dad and brother, although they said they never asked for raises in their entire careers — they just got them!)
Here’s what Engelthaler and her family had to share:
Do your homework
Women are natural “preparers.” Our instincts tell us that when change is coming, we need to get ready. It’s why we “nest” when expecting a child and why we write lists and schedules before heading out of town. So, according to Engelthaler, we should put that instinct to work for us.
“Do your homework,” Engelthaler says. It’s important to know where your salary falls in comparison to company and industry standards — and to know what sorts of raises your company has been giving out.
“In a large company, check with HR to see the range for your ‘pay grade,’” advises Engelthaler. “Also, see if they even give performance raises. You don’t want to ask for something that no one gets.”
Beth Cheshier echoes this and cautions: “I did not do my homework, and when I told my boss that I had not received a raise in several years, the boss replied that I’d been given cost of living increases.” Because she hadn’t remembered that, she wasn’t prepared to counter with asking about performance raises. The conversation ended abruptly, Beth says, and she felt foolish.
It’s also good to prepare what we’ll say in the meeting. “If we’ve done our homework,” Lesa says, “It’s okay to come in with something even typed out.”
Cheshier agrees. “Prepare before you go in; yes, rehearse, but try to be natural. Be comfortable but have your ducks in a row.”
The ducks you should have in a row include comparable salaries, but also your strengths, says Engelthaler. “If the company has done well (if times are hard this is not a good time to be asking for anything!) then be prepared to give examples of how you’ve contributed to that success. You can use ‘we’ or ‘my team,’ but this is not the time to shy away from saying, ‘I did this.’”
“Something like, I was honored to bring in this business or save the company this much money” goes a long way, according Engelthaler.
Rachel Anderson suggests taking your strengths forward. “Don’t only talk about the past, but include what you plan to do this next year for the company,” Anderson says. “Which implies you are enthused about the company and therefore are deserving of salary increase to add future value.”
Weigh the mommy perks
Even with all the sleepless nights and non-stop work, lets face it: the perks of being a mom are pretty great. The perks of being a mom at work? Not always so great.
So those of us who enjoy flexibility or other “mommy perks” on the job often shy away from asking for raises because we recognize we enjoy many other perks. This is to our credit — and a strength of many women that we value our family above any amount of money. We truly are grateful for flexibility or extended leave and we don’t want to risk losing that for a few bucks.
That thinking can be wise, says Engelthaler, who recently watched her own daughter-in-law navigate this after she had Engelthaler’s first grandchild.
“Here’s what I observed [with my daughter-in-law],” says Engelthaler. “Be grateful for the perks. Unfortunately, there are still many companies that do not take family life into consideration! However, if you have contributed, if you’ve done an amazing job as an employee even while getting off at 4 p.m. to pick up the kids from school (imagine that?), then feel free to go get that appointment to talk with your boss.”
In a separate conversation, Rose Fuller, a career counselor in Naples, Florida, who is working on a book for moms returning to the workforce, noted that the skills we learn on the “mom job,” such as time-management, multi-tasking, and intuition — often benefit us at work — a perk that benefits both women and their employers.
Time it well
As Fuller reminded us, women have been proven to be better at reading emotions than men. Which, Fuller says, is a handy skill when it comes to asking for a raise. Not only do we need to read our boss’s emotions, but being able to “read” a company’s emotions could be the difference in getting a raise or not.
This is why Lesa Engelthaler finds timing so critical. For instance, “Unless the culture is otherwise,” Engelthaler says, “a great time to bring up a raise is at your yearly review.” A not-so-great-time might be if you’re just back from an extended maternity leave, she suggests.
“In other words, if you love your job — be smart. Be respectful,” Engelthaler says. And that includes respectful of their time. So, make an appointment with your boss. “Don’t spring the discussion on him or her, and say what the appointment is for: to discuss your salary, not discuss a raise.” says Engelthaler. “Once in the meeting, get right to the point.”
While your boss is talking, take notes, Engelthaler adds. “It shows respect and that you are there to learn not just give your opinion.”
Plus, those notes will help you as you “read” the discussion in your memory.
Make it personal, but not too personal
One of women’s best characteristics is our ability to stand up for our colleagues — particularly our fellow female colleagues. It’s wonderful that so many of us fancy ourselves warriors for womenkind and want to look out for our sisters, but when it comes to asking for a raise, Cheshier says, “Represent yourself. Don’t go in representing ‘all women’ and suggesting all your female colleagues need raises. It never works.”
That said, according to Engelthaler: “If you are bringing up the raise because a male (or males) at your level makes more than you (because you did your homework!), then don’t beat around the bush. Be direct but not accusing. Perhaps even frame it as, ‘Help me understand the rationale for this decision.’”
Cheshire suggests a different tactic entirely. “I would not even mention the male verse female thing,” she says. “I would say, ‘Colleague to colleague, we are not paid the same.’ And if it happens naturally, let the boss be the one to bring up the gender issue.”
While it’s essential to make the conversation personal and about you, Rachel Anderson cautions: “This should never be about your personal financial situation. Example, don’t say: ‘I just got pregnant and we were not expecting this.’”
While it may feel less noble fighting the raise fight on behalf of yourself alone, in reality a raise for you is a good thing for your female colleagues.
Be a good sport
While we like to imagine that after we’ve done our homework, timed it right, and sold our bosses on the reasons we deserve a raise, we’ll get a nice bump in salary, of course, it doesn’t always happen — for a variety of reasons.
And here’s where it can perhaps be trickiest to “act like a lady.” After all, women have been told “no” throughout history more times than we can count. Hearing “no” can fire the fury of the ghosts of suffragettes past. Or, it can crush us, leaving us back at the playground being told, “no, you can’t play with us.”
This is where being a true lady — one who knows how to compose herself and walk through life with confidence and self-respect — comes into play.
Engelthaler suggests that if you get a “no” to your request but still want to stay with the firm, you simply say, “Thank you for your time,” and let let your boss know that that you will bring it up again. “After you have thanked them,” says Engelthaler. “You could say you’d like to revisit the idea at another time in the future as the company grows.”
But Engelthaler, in agreement with all the women (and actually the men, too) at the table, says, “Bottom line, you have to ask yourself, Am I prepared to walk away from this job if they do not honor my request or negotiate even a little? If you are not prepared to do that, then you need to take that into consideration before you ask for the meeting.”
Ultimately, it’s in these moments of accepting defeat or in getting less than we feel is due that we have our greatest opportunities to show the class acts that we are. As retired executive assistant Jeannette Shackelford, says, “You don’t have to act like a man, but you also don’t need to take off your stiletto and bang on the boss’s desk!”