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Feelings About Negotiation Affect What We Earn

In 1996, the National Committee on Pay Equity launched Equal Pay Day to bring awareness the pay gap between women and men. This year Equal Pay Day will be April 8. According to the Wage Project, a female high school graduate can expect to earn $700,000 less than her male counterpart; a college graduate, $1.2 million less; and a professional school graduate, up to $2 million less.

I’ve spent a good portion of my career helping women earn their worth. Women attorneys, accountants, executives at all levels and even entrepreneurs struggle with negotiating for what they believe they’ve rightly earned. Most men I encounter are encouraged by the fact that everything is negotiable; while women see a negotiable world as overwhelming, frustrating and — if you don’t possess negotiation skills — wildly unfair. While no one denies that policy can help to mitigate pay inequity between men and women, there are more layers to the problem than simply passing laws. Even learning to negotiate isn’t enough. If we want to change outcomes in relation to pay equity, we have to see negotiation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to professional advancement.

Hoping for the Best

Too often when we are trying to create change, we place the locus on behavior. Do this not that. Indeed, when it comes to negotiation, skill plays a monumental role in achieving positive results. But, in fact, our relationship to negotiation is just as critical. Our belief system informs how we behave. If we believe that we should trust that we will be rewarded for good work and that we shouldn’t have to negotiate, we won’t negotiate. If we believe that we just need to work harder to earn our worth, we won’t negotiate. If we believe that we simply aren’t good at negotiation — we won’t negotiate. Dismantling and disrupting our belief system not only redefines how we feel about negotiation, it creates greater possibility for financial equity.

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Last year, I worked with a client to position her for a role that was coming available internally. My client, who we will call Vanessa, delivered a strong strategy and was offered the job. Vanessa felt triumphant until she learned that no salary increase would be accompanying the new position. She was told that this was “how it was done” and they would consider an increase in 10 months. Vanessa could either accept what was offered or ask for her full pay with the new position. Twelve hours after sending a carefully constructed counter offer, Vanessa was granted the increase she requested. The most important element of Vanessa’s story is her perception that her circumstances were in fact negotiable. It would have been much easier to accept that she could take the role without an increase or leave it, but instead she chose to make a case for paying her immediately. If she believed that she had no choice, she would not have bothered to counter.

An aversion to negotiation is costly. Perceiving negotiation as distasteful, uncomfortable and adversarial can be extremely detrimental to earning your worth. In fact, negotiation is about getting both sides to a fair conclusion. Regardless of whether it’s a contract negotiation, a divorce, a salary negotiation or division of domestic chores, the ability to come to an equitable agreement need not be such a repugnant process. Very often it’s incumbent upon us to present agreeable terms rather than to be held hostage by what is offered.


Confronting Beliefs

Because women often feel that negotiation is adversarial and confrontational, it’s often hard to inspire women to negotiate — especially for themselves. If we shatter all of our anxieties, beliefs and assumptions about negotiation, we can become more adept at learning how to ethically and elegantly advocate for ourselves in a manner that feels good. Simply assuming that we will be rewarded for a job well done places us in a fragile, passive position with few opportunities for growth. If we want to create a legacy of equity for future generations of young women, we must first begin to change our own relationship with the negotiation process and see the process as rich with opportunity rather than rife with anxiety.

Ann marie Houghtailing is principal of The Houghtailing Group.

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