The negotiating advice Sheryl Sandberg hates giving women—but needs to

When it comes to negotiating as a woman, reality ain’t so peachy.
When it comes to negotiating as a woman, reality ain’t so peachy.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

At a recent forum on women’s economic opportunity, Facebook chief operating officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg fielded a difficult question: What advice do you have for women working to launch a new business, in terms of overcoming discrimination they may face in receiving funding? 

She offered the audience an answer, but it was one she was sorry to provide.

“I want to be clear, I’m about to give advice that I don’t want to give, because I don’t want these biases to exist. But the best way to get rid of these biases is to get women to negotiate well …” she said. To that end, she advised that women seeking a raise or promotion frame the negotiation in terms of the collective benefit to the organization, rather than just in terms of why she ought to be recognized.

“If you are negotiating for a raise and you are a man, you can walk in and say ‘I deserve this.’ That will not backfire on you,” Sandberg said at the Oct. 19 forum at Stanford University, which was hosted by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, LeanIn.Org, and Stanford Law School. “We know the data says it will backfire on a woman. So I think along with saying ‘I deserve this,’ [women should explain] that, you know, ‘This is important for [my] performance,’ and ‘This will make [me] more effective as a team member.'”

The advice essentially draws on one of the most universal stereotypes—that women should be communal-minded, always giving to others, while men should be leaders. This trope is why “when a woman leads, or when a girl leads, we call her bossy and aggressive, and when a boy leads, it’s fine,” Sandberg says. It’s also one reason why women see less success negotiating for raises and VC funding: because in these circumstances, they’re generally negotiating for themselves, not others.

Ideally, men would be more team-based in their negotiations, too. “Everyone being more communal would be a welcome change,” Sandberg says.

Until that day comes, it’s unfair to put a special burden on women to negotiate communally. But if it leads to advancement, then it at least puts them in a better position to level the playing field once they’ve attained the power they deserve.