I’ll never forget the first time I found out I was making less money than the equally qualified man sitting in the desk next to mine. It was frustrating, demoralizing, and confusing—I didn’t know where things had gone wrong.
For decades, American men and women were supposed to earn equal pay for equal work: In 1963, US president John F. Kennedy signed into law a pioneering piece of legislation called Equal Pay Act, designed to prevent gender-based discrimination in the workplace nationwide. Yet more than 50 years later, women and men are still not being paid equally, in part because of the way they answer one simple question: Did you negotiate your salary?
Katie Donovan, founder of Equal Pay Negotiations, is a woman employees want on their side. Based out of Boston, Donovan works to help all parties—from employee to employer to policy maker—understand the intricacies of salary negotiation and overcome bias-based pay gaps. After working at a staffing firm, an applicant tracking company and at trade associations, Donovan has observed the hiring process from all angles, and her unique blend of perspectives is eye-opening for the average job candidate.
Several factors contribute to pay inequality, but the only one you can control is what happens before the newly-inked contract is signed.
All hiring managers want one thing
The first thing all job candidates need to do to is rid themselves of the notion that hiring managers will offer a fair salary right out of the gate, says Donovan. Generous or stingy, competent or incompetent, all managers want one thing: the best employee for the least amount of money.
That’s an obstacle for both male and female job candidates, but research shows that men are often more aggressive negotiators, especially in circumstances where the opportunity to bargain is not made explicit. In these situations, women are more likely than men to settle for the salary they are initially offered, even if their employer has the budget to pay them more.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Never even think about accepting an offer before you have done your homework, says Donovan, who recommends starting with online resources like Salary.com, Payscale.com, Glassdoor, and other websites. Remember that salaries reported online typically represent an industry’s median—meaning that women are more likely to fall at the bottom of the bell curve. The wage gap grows even further for black and Latina women. So to bridge the wage gap, aim high.
“You want that median to represent the rock bottom number you would ever accept,” Donavan explains, “because the guys are probably landing near the top of that curve.”
Walk away from your first offer
Once you actually have the offer in hand, the next step is to walk away. “You need to get out of the room or off the phone immediately,” Donovan says. ”You need to thank them profusely and step back, and give yourself time to look at the offer objectively. I don’t care if it’s triple what you thought it was going to be. You need to be disappointed with it.”
Whatever you do, do not believe an employer who says there is no room or budget to negotiate. “Eighty-four percent of hiring managers assume there is going to be some kind of negotiation,” Donovan explains. Put another way: Women who fail to negotiate are almost certainly leaving money on the table.
I learned this particular lesson the hard way after naively (and gratefully) accepting the first number offered me by my first employer. Young and desperate to get a job in New York City, I was chagrined to discover a few months later that some of my peers—with less experience and less education—were making 20% more than me.
It would take several years, and several jobs, to make up the monetary ground lost by this early misstep. Some women may never totally recover.
Play to your strengths
Even when you start a negotiation, it’s never quite as simple as “asking for more.” The same kind of deeply rooted gender stereotypes that encourage women to act subservient in the home can carry over into the conference room. Two studies—one out of Rutgers University (pdf) in the 1990s and another from Harvard and Carnegie Mellon researchers (pdf) in 2005—found that women who acted aggressively or immodestly in corporate settings (including but not exclusively related to compensation negotiations) risked backlash.
But while the numbers and conventional wisdom may indicate otherwise, women are actually very good negotiators, according to Donovan. The key is to play to your strengths. ”We excel at collaborative negotiation—playing to the person who’s making the offer, and asking questions instead of making demands.” This echoes advice given by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Margaret A. Neale, a formidable negotiator who once told Forbes in an interview that women must frame negotiations as “not about me, but about what I can do for you.”
Obviously negotiations alone won’t fix the wage gap. That’s why Donovan spends a good deal of her time talking to policymakers and corporations. Several high-profile news events like the Sony hack and subsequent Hollywood salary scandal have helped push this issue into the mainstream, and several large companies, including Instagram and GoDaddy, have rannounced plans to audit their payroll for inconsistencies.
So far, one of the biggest US success stories in terms of equal pay is cloud computing company Salesforce, which claims to have spent $3 million in 2015 closing its wage gap. Microsoft and Facebook also claim to have closed their wage gaps—although as Quartz points out, pay equity does not necessarily translate to gender equality, most notably when it comes to diversity in management roles. Ultimately, it’s clear some companies are proactively trying to combat the problem, especially in the tech sector. But that doesn’t mean women should stop fighting any time soon.
Even women who make six figures may be getting shortchanged, says Donovan. “Unless you have proof, the guy sitting next to you may be making six figures too, but I’ll bet it’s a bigger six figures.”
“Don’t settle for happy,” she adds. “Settle for equal.”