Negotiating While Female: Beyond the Headline Hype

It’s not enough to say that women need to “lean in” and ask for what they want.

It’s not enough to say that people react negatively when women “lean in” and ask for what they want.

Neither approach actually helps someone accomplish anything. It just encourages, or discourages, behavior.

Women can negotiate just as well as men, but no one negotiates well if they don’t know how.

Last week Slate published an article about a woman who tried to negotiate with a prospective employer and got shut down.

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner vi

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner vi

Skimming over the relevant details, one might conclude, as the author of the article did, that women are punished when we try to negotiate because it is socially unacceptable for women to be that forward.

But that’d be an easy answer to a complex question and it’s demoralizing and it ticks me off.

Any time someone suggests people can’t negotiate because they’re a  [fill in the blank] it ticks me off.

I’m gonna elbow my way in between Sheryl Sandberg‘s call to arms and Slate’s disappointment with social norms and suggest, controversially, that when people don’t know how to negotiate they don’t negotiate very well, regardless of their particular identity.

If we want to keep encouraging anyone in a traditionally less powerful position to stand up and demand their full worth, we need to expand the conversation to include how to negotiate.

The Backstory (as known to the Internet)
As with all ripped-from-the-headlines pieces, we don’t know what we don’t know. We only know the facts that are available to us and this isn’t an opportunity to grade a stranger on how they handled an important life situation, it’s an opportunity to learn.

A woman shared her story of negotiating a job offer for a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college. She sent the following email:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

And got the following response:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching- and student-centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Did they rescind the offer because of a failure to conform to social norms? Or something else?

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via

I did a bit of research (followed a link) and read the original post on The Philosophy Smoker and a post providing more information about the situation from the candidate herself.

Turns out many of the things she requested were very common at the school: the type of maternity leave requested was the school’s unofficial policy and frequent practice.

Her requests were normal for the position: she asked for a less than 20% increase in pay, which she thought was well within acceptability because she’d recently negotiated a different offer for a greater percentage increase and it’d been no problem.

And she had very good reasons for wanting what she wanted: “The reason for asking about the perks (especially about the course reduction and about limiting the number of preps) was not only to make room for my research but also to ramp up to doing a good job teaching a number of classes that I have not taught before.” 

Again: did the negotiation flounder purely because of her gender, or were there other influences?

First off, I think that e-mail is lousy for negotiations like this, but I’m going to assume that e-mail was her only way to enter this negotiation. E-mail is great for negotiating pure numbers; it is terrible for negotiating things that involve emotions. And whether we like to admit it or not, the work we do involves emotions.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Give Context to Your Demands
She starts off her counter-offer by reiterating her interest in the position, and she’s clear about what she wants, which is great.

What she doesn’t do, however, is provide context for why she’s asking for what she’s asking for. That’s dangerous in this negotiation because it puts the search committee in the role of mind-reader.

Unless you’re trying to scare someone into a certain action, you don’t want the other side to spend a lot of time guessing over your motivations. If you allow that to happen, you are giving away influence in the negotiation. Instead of actually understanding where you’re coming from, they will make up their own reason “why” for each request you’ve made, and they likely won’t give you the benefit of the doubt when they do so.

By Philip Wilson via

By Philip Wilson via

When your negotiation partners have important values at play, like their school’s commitment to a teaching environment, they will assess your actions in terms of how much your actions could negatively or positively impact their values. When the impact is unclear, they’ll assume the impact is negative and protect themselves. It feels safer to assume the other side is out to get you and go on the defensive when motives are unclear.

My theory: because she provided her demands without any context, the committee assumed the worst. They decided because they were far apart on a number of issues, it wasn’t worth continuing the negotiation. Should they have done that? No, probably not; it sounds like they missed out on a good candidate. Is it completely normal that they did what they did? Yes.

Be Yourself
From additional information the candidate provided to The Philosophy Smoker, we learn that prior to sending this particular e-mail she had sent a note to the college warning that her tone would change as they entered the negotiation period.

Please don’t ever do this. I know a lot of people think this is a considerate way to notify somebody that you’re about to set feelings aside and Get Real, but I promise you it isn’t.

Instead of reading as business-like, the change in tone often reads as if you have multiple personalities…and one of them is cold, aggressive and self-centered.  This freaks people out. They start to question if they really know you, and all that good relationship-building work you did in person starts to crumble.

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via

Don’t get me wrong; being firm and assertive is fine! Just make sure you sound like yourself when you do it. Human beings appreciate consistency. When we don’t get consistency it’s unsettling, and we do what we think we need to do to get back to a place of consistency, even if it means breaking off ties with someone.

She also says she assumed she wouldn’t get everything she was asking for, but asked for it anyway.

Real negotiation truth: sometimes this works. When it does, it’s in strategic situations where you’ve already done a lot of work to make sure your counterpart knows why you want what you want. Even more important: they know that fulfilling your needs does not threaten their interests.

Going big like this at the start of a negotiation isn’t effective. Why? Without additional information, the other side will assume all demands have the same priority and importance. They won’t see any of them as long shots or nice-to-haves; they’ll read them all equally. Your request for only blue M&Ms in the faculty lounge comes across just as take-it-or-leave-it as your request for maternity leave.

Does that mean you should tell them “Here’s what I want, listed in order of how important it is to me”? No.

Instead, you should help them understand why you want what you want so they can see the big picture with you. Remember: give context, don’t make them mind-read, and be yourself.

Here is a re-write, using the information the candidate provided, that incorporates the lessons above.

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. I have some questions about the offer and a few requests. Your answers to these will help make my decision easier.

During my discussions with various members of the college community I came to understand that a semester of maternity leave is common practice at Nazareth. I’d like to confirm that if I were to need it, I would be be eligible for the same.

I am excited about the prospect of teaching at a small college with a focus on the classroom. In order to ensure that I am prepared to give my best effort to my students, particularly those in classes I haven’t taught before, I have two requests:

  1. A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc work. This will ensure I’m not distracted by my research while preparing for classes; and
  2. No more than three new class preps per year, for the first three years. This will allow me to ramp up for those classes I haven’t taught before and won’t put the students in the position of trying to get the attention of a professor teaching a half dozen new classes each year.

Regarding compensation, as you know, I’ve recently interviewed at a number of other colleges for similar positions. Through this experience I have a better insight into what assistant professors with similar qualifications in my field are paid. This insight is valuable not only for the practical information it provides, but also because it highlights how the greater academic community values these positions.

Nazareth’s offer is competitive, however a starting salary of $65,000 is more in line with industry norms and would ensure I am compensated similarly to my peers. Ensuring compensation is similar to what is offered to my academic peers befits both of us from a competitive standpoint and I am hopeful it is something Nazareth can provide.

Finally, because continued research will undoubtedly enhance what I can offer my students, I’m curious to know if the college has provided pre-tenure sabbaticals for professors in the bottom half of their tenure clock. If so, I think this could be very valuable for me, and would like to better understand how I could avail myself of the opportunity.

As I hope is apparent, I’m excited about the possibility of working at a college dedicated to both teaching and continued research. I appreciate you taking the time to consider my questions. If it would be helpful for me to answer any questions the selection committee might have, I’ll gladly make myself available for a phone call.

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via

By Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via

Finally: don’t get me wrong. Sexism exists. People who punish women for asking for what they want and need exist, and they may not even realize they’re doing it. It absolutely can be harder to negotiate while female.

But don’t sell yourself short by thinking that that’s just the way the world works and there isn’t anything we can do about it. There’s plenty we can do: we can teach women, and anyone else who feels they don’t have power in a negotiation, how to effectively negotiate for what they need. Assumptions and biases be damned.

Categories: Dealing with People


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3 responses to “Negotiating While Female: Beyond the Headline Hype”

  1. Yahaira C. says:

    This was a very informative post and overall great read. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an article that focuses on the subject of negotiation coupled with the unique set of challenges of being female. As a fellow freelancer, I’ve found that I really love to negotiate. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of the steady client vs. industry standard pay, or the prospective client balking at a quote that includes a deposit. I would, however, like to know your thoughts about how female independent contractors are affected.

    In recent history, I’d applied for an in-house position. It seemed like a lucrative opportunity worth sacrificing the ebb and flow of freelance work for. I took all of my learned negotiation skills with me: research the company, the industry standard and the local market, provide the why of what I’m asking for, make reasonable requests, be prepared to walk away, and (to me) the most important part of negotiation – do it in person.

    Except that after all of that, I waited for the final offer which never came. I’m still waiting for the rejection. Although I’m both disappointed AND relieved, I wonder if any of it had to do with gender. For the record, I asked about their flex time policy (they have one for some of their employees), queried about professional development packages and/or tuition reimbursement (they’d offered it, but it was currently suspended) and more frequent professional reviews (only if it’s informal). My being shot down on all fronts was surprising, considering that it’s a well-established company whose stock had remained consistent for the past five years.

    Feeling defeated, I finally asked for a higher starting salary which was the least valuable consolation. I still haven’t heard back and I couldn’t help but think, “If I’d only been a guy…”

    • Katie Lane says:

      Hi Yahaira,

      That’s frustrating; I’m sorry! One thing to keep in mind is that traveling between freelance and 9-to-5 worlds there is a bit of culture shock. Things you would have thought would be totally normal (like contacting someone who’d interviewed for a position) might not occur to them. The interworkings of any one company’s culture can be difficult for outsiders to grasp. Their reaction could be related to gender or it might be related to something else entirely and you (frustratingly) will likely never know which it is.

      One thing I encourage all of my negotiation clients to do is handle every situation in a way that they can be professionally and personally proud of. If they do that and it still doesn’t work out it probably means that it wouldn’t have worked out in the long run either.


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