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Negotiation Won’t Fix the Gender Wage Gap

I’m a good negotiator.

I’ve observed how the men in my life (primarily, my partner) negotiate everything–from buying a car to rental agreements. I also read the study that found when women don’t negotiate their first salary, they lose $1 million over their lifetime. I came prepared to negotiations, researching the market and comparable rates, presenting a range and knowing the lowest number I’d walk away from.

What I quickly learned is that all negotiation is not created equal. You don’t get what you deserve. You don’t even get what you ask for. You get what the other person thinks you deserve.

And for women of color, that expectation is….low.

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at an eminent women’s conference about negotiation. The organizer and I had a prep call to finalize details. Things were going well until I brought up my speaker fee. She started coughing. It was clear she was uncomfortable talking about money.

Yes, the organizer of a conference on negotiation.

She demurred and said she would get back to me, as the conference didn’t pay speakers. Here’s my HBR article on why that’s unacceptable.

Then she went on to say, “since you’re a writer, you’ll also be expected to write 3-4 articles for our blog leading up to the conference.”

“Great,” I said. “What’s your budget per article?”

The answer was...none.

A part of me left the meeting believing that she would check with her organizing team and find the budget for me to speak. Afterall, I was expected to fly to New York City on my own dime.

Well, I never heard from her again.

What Happens When Women (of Color) Negotiate

I wish I could say this was a one-off, but variations of this happen to me often enough. I’m not expected to negotiate or advocate for myself. As a woman of color, I’m supposed to be grateful for the crumbs that come my way.

Even managers and peers who have otherwise championed me have made backhanded comments when I talk numbers about how “I stand up for myself” and I “drive a hard bargain.” Descriptors I have not heard about my male counterparts in negotiations.

The gender wage gap cannot be solved by teaching women to negotiate better.

Well, Why Doesn’t Negotiation Work?

Expecting women to individually negotiate away the pay gap is not just disingenuous, it’s harmful.

“Asking women to take responsibility for closing the pay gap with their ace negotiating skills is sort of like teaching women self-defense as a way of addressing sexual assault. It puts the burden on women to figure this out as individuals—it doesn’t ask much of employers, and it doesn’t really address the bigger issue,” I read in The Cut a few years ago.

Moreover, society expects women to be likeable and agreeable. When we negotiate, we aren’t conforming to those expectations. Women of color, especially, face a double whammy when negotiating navigating those tricky intersections of racial and gender expectations. But the “negotiate to get what you deserve” narrative persists. So...we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

Corporate culture is ripe for change in this regard. With all these social barriers, it’s almost surprising that salary negotiation has continued as a practice for so long. I say “almost” because we know workplace systems were designed without women in mind.

But you’re reading this because, like me, you believe inclusion is leadership.

  1. I see only two viable options for “negotiation” to actually address the gender wage gap: Find a way to overcome social conditioning so women are not penalized for negotiating. Easier said than done. Or,

  2. Take the negotiating tactic off the table entirely and normalize talking about numbers transparently.

Guess which one I’m rooting for?

What’s your worst negotiation story ever?

Does the negotiate-to-lower-the-wage-gap myth persist at your workplace? My talks address why this is a problem. Ideal for keynotes, company meetings, and ERGs, I'd be happy to come to your workplace (virtually, of course) to present to your team. Book me to speak.


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