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9/20/15 - A Woman's Most Powerful Salary Negotiation Tool? Silence


Salary negotiations fill many people with fear, but studies show that women find them particularly challenging.

"You have to remember that women are newer to the workplace," says Katie Donovan, the founder of Equal Pay Negotiations, a consultancy that helps women get the pay they deserve. "Sure, we've been secretaries, teachers, and nurses forever, but in terms of executive positions that require negotiating a salary, we're on relatively new ground. In my own life, my father taught my brother to negotiate, but my mother taught me to how to wear lipstick. Many of us did not have role models giving us the inside scoop."

Donovan compares women's struggle with negotiating their salary to the struggles of first-generation college students navigating a college campus. Students whose parents didn't go to college may not fully understand the resources that are at their disposal and, as a result, not take advantage of them. Similarly, women may not realize that many companies set aside money with the expectation that employees will ask for better compensation packages—although, of course, they will not volunteer this extra money. The data back this up: found that 84% of employers expect prospective employees to negotiate salary during the interview stage. Yet only 30% of women bother to negotiate at all, while 46% of men negotiate.

"I kept hearing about how women hardly ever negotiate their salary, while men almost always do," Donovan says. "I set up this company because I didn't want to see my nieces, who at the time were between 14 and 22, having the same conversations in their 40s about how much money they had left on the table that so many of my friends were having." (That figure, over the course of a lifetime of not negotiating, could add up to as much as $2 million in lost earnings.)

Donovan gives talks, runs workshops, and does online seminars to teach women the basics of negotiation. She even offers an app that takes into account the gender income gap so you can learn what men typically make for a particular job. She also coaches clients one-on-one as they walk through a salary negotiation with their prospective employer. In her years of experience, she's gathered some pearls of wisdom for people who have just received a job offer and are ready to negotiate their compensation passage. (While Donovan has deployed this advice in helping women to narrow the gender pay gap, she points out that her advice applies to job candidates of both genders; women just tend to be less aware of these issues going into a negotiation.)

"You would never go into an interview without a resume," Donovan says. "In the same way, you should never accept your offer without negotiating your salary."

One of the first lines that a prospective employer will give you is that the compensation package is non-negotiable—but that's likely not true. Salaries are almost always negotiable.

Employers have many savvy ways to convince you not to negotiate. Sometimes, it will come across as flattery: "You're such a great candidate that I didn't want to bother with negotiating—so I went to bat and got you the highest salary you could possibly start with." At other times, it might be something less positive: "We offer entry-level employees a fixed package," "You're not as good as you think you are," or "Your information is wrong."

"This is just their starting line," Donovan says. "Most of us accept what they are saying at face value, but really, it's just part of the game. The biggest mistake you can make is falling for it."

Donovan points out that many women are very good at following rules, which is why girls consistently outperform boys in school. But sometimes succeeding in the workplace means breaking perceived rules; men often don't take a "no" from an employer to be the last word. Women going into negotiations should always assume that there is always some wiggle room in the compensation package. "If increasing salary doesn't seem to be working, try negotiating on things like vacation time, bonuses, or benefits," Donovan says.

Donovan says that one of the most important tactics to an effective negotiation is learning to become comfortable with occasional bouts of awkward silence. "In sales, this is something that people are constantly trained in," she says. "You need to stop selling against yourself. That's what happens when you keep talking. You need to ask a question, then shut up and give the other person a chance to respond."

There are several places where women might be tempted to cave into the silence and say things that work against their best interests. For instance, employers might ask you what your previous salary was. Donovan strongly asserts that you should never give out this information; it's simply not relevant. "Your salary has to do with your performance and the market rate," Donovan says. "It has nothing to do with what you were making before or what your current cost of living is." If you are asked this question, she recommends saying, "It's confidential," then not saying anything. It is important not to let the discomfort of the silence push you to give up information that you don't want to share.

Another point when a job candidate is likely to cave is when the prospective employer brings to the table a compensation package that is lower than expected. This does not mean that the negotiation is over. Donovan recommends responding enthusiastically about the job, but making it clear that the financial offer is not acceptable. As a first step, she suggests asking for time to review the entire package, to identify all the areas that are worth negotiating over. Then, you can go back and say, "Thank you, I am so excited about the job. However, that offer seems low based on my research." Then, let the employer come back with a response. Don't back off from your stance, even if there is initial silence.

Before entering a negotiation, Donovan tells her clients to think about all the ways they might be coerced not to negotiate or to believe that they are asking for an unreasonable salary. Then, the key is to come armed with hard data about market rate salaries based on sites like,, and Glassdoor, or information from trade associations. "Then you can shift the conversation away from the salary that you want to focusing on what you are owed based on your performance and the market," Donovan says.

A common way an employer will shut down further communication is by saying they cannot afford more. In this case, be armed with research about the employer's finances. If they are publicly traded, you can find information about them on Bloomberg, Nasdaq, or NYSE; if they are private, scour their website and press releases. Then, an appropriate response would be to say, "I'm surprised to hear that. I saw you had X% increase in profits last year."

Another response might be that you are already getting the highest salary in your pay grade. Here, you rely on your knowledge of current market rates. You might respond by saying, "That is interesting to know, but not the issue. The concern is that the pay is not on par with the current market."

You might be told that the salary you are asking for is for more experienced workers. In this case, you can respond with facts about your performance. You could point out that pay should reflect more than just time spent on the job, but education and results as well. Then point to quantifiable achievements that have resulted in increases in revenue or decreases in cost.

In each of these scenarios, the potential employer may respond with silence, as he or she processes what you are saying. Again, you should focus on sounding confident, which means being comfortable with gaps that are bound to emerge in the conversation. "Before you go into a negotiation, you will want to practice by role playing these conversations over and over," says Donovan, "until they stop feeling uncomfortable to you."

ELIZABETH SEGRAN - STAFF WRITER , FAST COMPANY - Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs and The Nation.