When other women ask me for advice on how to negotiate their salaries, I typically have one answer: If you’re worried your number is too high and your heart’s racing so fast you feel like it’s trying to punch you in the throat, add another 10%.
My point is that no matter how much you practice your negotiation “speech,” no matter how much you’ve researched, or how many mentors you have rooting for you from afar, negotiating salary with two X chromosomes often feels uncomfortable. The trick is to move toward that discomfort and then plow through it. I once successfully negotiated my way to a 25% raise and although I may have sounded like a badass at the time, I was on the other end of the phone desperately looking around for a vessel into which I could projectile vomit. It’s been a few years since then and it hasn’t gotten any easier.
The very act of walking into a room or picking up a phone and asking for more — more money, a better title, sweeter benefits — goes against just about every base instinct young women are conditioned to have from an early age. We are taught to give, to please, to smile and to make everyone around us comfortable in our presence. And then we’re bombarded with studies that show how much less we earn than men and have to listen to idiots blame us for adhering to the gender roles we’ve been squeezed into since birth.
Just ask Jennifer Lawrence. She is a bona fide movie star. She has an Oscar. She is the star of two major, multimillion-dollar franchises and has graced countless magazine covers. And yet, in a candid letter published Tuesday, Lawrence says she herself left money on the table in the past because she was uncomfortable asking for more. Rather than push through it and stand her ground, she did what so many other women have done before. She retreated. “I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight,” she writes. “I didn’t want to seem difficult or spoiled.”
She learned her lesson the hard way, on a public stage, when movie studio Sony’s email system was hacked, revealing Lawrence’s male costars were paid many millions more than she was for the same film. I know it’s hard to feel sorry for a woman whose paycheck includes a few more zeroes than the average worker’s (a fact she does acknowledge in her essay), but her experience is likely familiar to many women. We earn less than men in just about every profession, from psychologists and doctors to lawyers and housekeepers. In her letter, Lawrence vows to stand her ground from now on. “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable,” she declares. “F--- that.”
We all want to cheer when we see a powerful woman declare that she’s giving gender bias the middle finger. But the truth is that Jennifer Lawrence, A-list actress, has a lot less to lose by being unapologetic about the talent and value she brings to the table. And in her eagerness to encourage other women to follow her lead, she misses a crucial point — what can happen when normal women like you and me stand up for ourselves and ask for more.
Multiple studies show that people are less likely to want to work with or be managed by women who are seen as tough negotiators, especially when it comes to their own salary. Interviewers are prone to an unconscious gender bias toward women that leads them to judge women differently during the interview process than men. They’re more likely to focus on a woman’s social skills than her job experience. This can be doubly damaging if you are a minority and not only have gender bias to worry about (the wage gap, by the way, is far wider among Black and Hispanic women than white women) but racial bias as well.
So how do we get around this catch-22? The general consensus among researchers is that it’s not what you say but how you say it. Hannah Bowles, chair of Harvard’s Women and Power program, says women are less likely to be punished for asking for more if they frame their request as being something not just good for themselves but for the team as a whole, listing specific reasons they deserve more. A pair of Wharton and Columbia Business School professors nicknamed this the “mama bear” approach. For example, rather than saying “I want my compensation to reflect my skills and experience,” you squeeze in a “mama bear” statement: “With my skills and experience, I’m going to help the whole team accomplish X, Y, and Z. I feel that my compensation should reflect that.”
It also helps to have other colleagues ready to go to bat for you, preferably colleagues who are friendly with upper management. If you get an advocate to do the bragging for you, you can convince your bosses you’re worth that raise or promotion without dealing with all the risks associated with being a woman who dares to sing her own praises.
These are pretty unsatisfying solutions, I know, primarily because they put the onus on the victims of unconscious gender bias to change our behavior, rather than the people perpetuating it. This advice also pretty much goes against Lawrence’s newfound approach of not caring about pleasing others. But for those of us without an Oscar or millions of dollars to cushion our fall, it’s about as good as it gets.
Salary negotiations will always be an awkward dance, regardless of how often you practice. Understand it. Own it.
And keep going anyway.