Unfair negotiation standards constrain progress for women in the workplace


Opinions Editor


A blog titled Philosophy Smoker recently published the story of W, a female Ph.D. candidate who lost an offer for a tenure-track position at Nazareth College after she attempted to negotiate a higher salary and more benefits with the selection committee. In the last few weeks, media have criticized Nazareth College as well as the attacks against W for daring to negotiate as a young woman with a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

Stories like W’s need to be shared to raise awareness around the reality that women face when negotiating their work benefits. These stories, however, can also be extremely destructive if they instigate a fear of negotiation. Women should have the choice to negotiate. But how should women approach it?

It is unacceptable that for women, negotiating is a scenario in which the worst that can happen is not getting no for an answer, but having an offer revoked. Negotiation experts often advise women to prepare to walk away from negotiations without success, but W’s tale seems to be telling women to be prepared to be turned away. This trend is extremely destructive for the advancement of women in the workforce because it will discourage many women from even attempting to negotiate.

Negotiation makes both men and women uncomfortable. But the fact of the matter is, women are judged more harshly than men when they negotiate. Professors Linda Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles from Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard University, respectively, found that men who negotiated faced no negative responses from their employers. On the other hand, women were perceived as demanding and could therefore alienate colleagues who have the potential to be important mentors and sponsors in the long run.

A recent article in the New York Times titled “Moving Past Gender Barriers to Negotiate a Raise” recommends several other strategies. The author of the article, Tara Siegel Bernard, gives negotiating tips to women such as keeping a record of all the positive feedback they receive or taking caution when they use outside offers to negotiate in order to prevent sounding threatening or aggressive.

Her advice in the article reflects the extent to which women need to go out of their way to successfully ask for higher salaries. Siegel Bernard clearly strives to improve the role of women in the workforce but fails to recognize that women should not have to act in these ways in order to negotiate successfully.  Employers need advice on how to follow gender neutral hiring practices more urgently than women need advice on how to avoid sounding “unreasonable” when they negotiate. Siegel Bernard’s suggestions prevent women from moving past gender barriers and instead propagate gender barriers.

Similarly, in an interview with Levo League, feminist figure Sheryl Sandberg states that women need to justify why they request higher salaries and benefits, smile and speak in terms of “we” in order to sound cooperative. Like Siegel Bernard’s suggestions, Sandberg’s words support gender stereotypes.

Sandberg herself notes the irritating implications of the negotiating advice she gives to women. During the Levo League interview, Sandberg said, “I hate this advice … I don’t like the advice I’m giving. But I’m a pragmatist.”

Pointing to instances of how unfair and infuriating it is for women to have to work much harder to negotiate is simple. When we sit before potential employers as seniors or recent graduates, however, many of us will want to devour every single word of advice offered by Siegel Bernard and Sheryl Sandberg offer, no matter how unfair it is.

Women are already judged by employers as too demanding when they ask for higher salaries directly, and we cannot simultaneously attack these women who take the advice of both Siegel Bernard and Sandberg. The way that we decide to negotiate is our choice, and we must work toward a society that does not revoke offers or judge us as anti-feminist.

Support for other women lies at the heart of feminism, as Madeleine Albright ’59 once stated, “There is a special place in hell for women that do not help other women.”

Many of us will find ourselves navigating the workforce after graduating from Wellesley. Learning good negotiating skills is just as important as contributing to a society that does not judge women as overly demanding or anti-feminist when they negotiate.

Amanda Hess, staff writer at Slate magazine, wrote a response to Siegel Bernard’s salary negotiation guide. Hess points out that employers have the power to control how much a woman has to adopt the feminine gender role to negotiate.

Even if we do not pursue hiring positions during our careers, we can all be sure that we will be in a professional and social environment that has not yet learned to process women and men’s requests  equally.

We will have the power to change how women are judged in small and large ways. In doing so, we will be working to relieve women from feeling the need to playing the role of the smiling, extra cooperative female when negotiating basic needs such as higher salaries and maternity leave. As Wellesley women, we must contribute to a society that holds the requests of women and men to equal standards.


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