Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon
The waiting game.
LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES

I’m one of those women who didn’t negotiate her salary

Emily Withrow
By Emily Withrow

Assistant professor, Medill School of Journalism

You have to understand how embarrassing this is for me to admit. As far as people go, I’m an alpha male. I speak my mind. I work hard to curb my desire to best other people just for the sake of besting them. I will probably fight you. And I take pride in who I am, warts and all.

This is why I’ve replayed this one, catastrophic hiring conversation over and over in my head since it happened years ago, analyzing what went wrong and how I could have behaved differently. Every time I see the statistics about women and negotiation, I regret having acted unlike myself—who is normally some kind of friendly-feminist minority whip. So I’m coming out and admitting that I didn’t negotiate for my salary. Not for a single cent.

Here’s my analysis of what went wrong.

Lack of clarity about the purpose of the meeting

This was an in-person offer, set up via email as a meeting. I assumed (!) that “meeting,” in the context of the hiring process, meant an “interview.” Specifically, a final interview. So I arrived clad in my most ornate battle gear, each exquisite detail a carefully crafted argument I’d considered ahead of time. When I realized 10 minutes into the meeting that this was actually some idle chat and then a job offer, I threw out my armor. It was all wrong for this conversation. I was delighted and relieved, but terribly ill-prepared.

Lesson: If the purpose of a meeting isn’t clear, ask.

Look at how young you are

The person doing the hiring reminded me of my age repeatedly. He told me I was the youngest person he’d (ever?) hired for this position. Instead of taking that to be evidence of my ambition and achievements, I felt exposed and inexperienced. It hit my confidence—as I was getting a job offer—and put me in a disadvantaged position for negotiation.

Lesson: They’re not hiring you based on your age (or race, gender, sexuality, or anything else that comes up, I hope). So get this off the negotiating table, and if possible, out of your head. Steer conversation back to your skill set and experience.

“How much do you make now?”

It was a direct question. One I had not considered (see point #1) and therefore didn’t have a good script at the ready. I answered truthfully. He smiled, said, “I think we can do better,” and tacked on a small sum for his opening bid. Potential negotiations were now firmly linked to my previous salary and position (including any gender bias that went into determining that salary), instead of the new job’s responsibilities and rank.

Lesson: This tactic is a known contributor to the pay gap; imagine how stoked I was to see this news last week. I wish I’d said something like, “I’d prefer not to disclose that,” or, “I’d rather keep the focus on this job and its responsibilities.”

I didn’t want to embarrass him

This piece is the hardest for me to admit. I’ve learned so much in the years that have passed since this conversation. More about women’s socialized deference, about our socialized hesitation to rock the boat — behaviors that are contrary to my (contrarian) nature, but that run so deep that I screwed up this very, very important moment.

Here’s what happened in the end: When he finished his rambling offer, he concluded with something like, “There you have it.” I responded brightly, “Okay.” Meaning: Okay, information received. Okay, I need time to think. Okay, 10–4 good buddy.

But he interpreted it as “Okay, yes, I accept on the spot.”

He said, “It sounds like we have a deal.”

And I didn’t correct him. Because I didn’t want to embarrass him. I chose to let a man be correct instead of asserting myself.

Lesson: Never again.

  • If you’re hiring, be kind and offer someone time to think. It sets the tone for your future relationship.
  • If you find yourself on the spot during an interview or negotiation, ask for time to think.
  • If you think better in writing, ask if negotiations can be done via email. If not, write yourself a script.
  • Do not let fear of calling out or correcting men drown out your own self-interest.
  • Correct without apology.