[Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Women In Tech,” a new book by Seattle entrepreneur and software developer Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, CEO and cofounder of Fizzmint. The book, due out March 29, is published by Sasquatch Books.]
Let’s have a chat about minute zero in the gender pay gap—the moment in your life that you have the most power to improve your economic condition and conquer the 21 percent Lady Tax.
Just the other day, I was coaching a woman through a salary negotiation. No matter how many times I told her that she was being moved through the interview process with indecent haste, that the company clearly wanted her, that her skill set and rarity in the job market made her much more valuable than what she was being offered, and that in days she could have multiple competing offers with a big pay bump, she chose to believe the negotiator’s claim that they couldn’t pay more than the somewhat-below-average rate she was offered. She was afraid that if she bargained, she’d be seen as a bitch and a user by her teammates. She took the offer.
I know how hard salary negotiation is. Men who see the salary gap between their female and male hires ask me in bewildered tones “Why didn’t she just negotiate harder?” because they don’t understand that for women, there is a serious economic and social penalty for not being liked. We have the statistics and research behind this fact: women’s likability decreases with their success, while men’s likability increases with their success. Likability is not a trivial or meaningless concept; if a woman is disliked, her economic status is directly affected.
We need to provide answers to problems like this one: “The hiring manager said he couldn’t offer me any more salary, so I took the job—then found out that everyone else had negotiated higher salaries, and I’m being paid 20 percent less than the others. How do I get more money?”
Sometimes a company culture of secrecy around pay leads to huge pay disparities. I remember being in a room with a male hiring manager who barely looked me in the eyes, droned company policy at me, and didn’t look up from his paperwork until he stated the lowball offer he’d been told to give me. I gave him the response I’ll teach you about below: “That’s a great place to start!” For the first time, he really noticed there was another human in the room, and somewhat taken aback, he politely told me that he didn’t usually get those sorts of responses (the unspoken subtext was “from women”), but that he’d get back to me. A day later, I had an offer that was 10 percent better than I’d even hoped for.
I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule (also known as Pareto optimality for my fellow academics). This rule is commonly used to mean that you can invent a usable solution for most problems rapidly, and that there are diminishing returns on perfection. If you can solve 80 percent of the problem in five minutes rather than 100 percent of the problem in six months, choose the first option and constantly iterate for better. You’ll take a giant leap toward your goal salary just by remembering these four common negotiating tactics used by recruiters and hiring managers, and preparing a script in advance to counter them. Remember that you’ll be flustered, stressed, and trying to make your new company happy, and in the moment, if you don’t have a script to follow, you’ll give in and try to make others happy rather than yourself.
TACTIC 1: “We’ll need you to tell us what you’d expect as a salary.”
Hell no, they don’t. They want you to prove you’re a team player by naming a low number so that you’ll be guaranteed to get the job. Do not name a number first. I repeat: Do not name a number first. No naming of numbers first. Here’s your script: “The salary you offer me tells me a lot about this company, and I think it’s really important for me to have that information so I can compare you with my other offers. [I don’t care if your gee-paw in Oklahoma has offered you $50 to clean out the garage; that’s still another job offer, and everyone has a few of those. It’s none of the negotiator’s business whether you’ll accept those other offers or not.] I’m happy to give you some time; why don’t I follow up with you tomorrow if I haven’t heard your offer by then? I know it can take some time to get the i’s dotted!” You can only pull this off if you mean it and you’re being cheerful, helpful, and totally honest with them. It’s one of the few moves that tells them that you’re in demand and happy to give them time but absolutely unwilling to make the first offer. You will lose money in every situation where you name the number first. While there’s tons of math and analyses behind that statement, here’s the simple logic. It is impossible for you to name the correct number. You will either name a number that is higher than theirs, casting you in the role of the unreasonable person, or name a number that is lower, meaning you’ll be underpaid the entire time you’re at that company. Always be the person to respond to an offer so that you can follow my next piece of advice.
TACTIC 2: Never, ever say yes to the first offer.
I’ll say it again. This moment—the moment where they’re offering you a salary that’s bigger than your college work-study self could ever have imagined—is minute zero in the gender pay gap.
There is a very gendered response to this moment. Men assume all salaries are negotiable and don’t say yes to the first offer (yes, I know I’m summarizing by gender, but it’s borne out by multiple deep statistical and quantitative studies on how men and women negotiate or do not). Women say thank you. Don’t do it. Here’s your script: “That’s a great place to start!”
I’m not going to give detailed instructions here because this moment is a very, very difficult point for many people—not just women but men as well can have trouble saying no to the first offer. I want you to believe with every ounce of your being that the person talking to you wants you to work for them much, much more than you want to work for them. Here’s why: it’s true. It costs in excess of $30,000 to find and recruit a single top developer, put them through interview rounds, and do onsite evaluations, and I promise you right now: they’re exhausted. It’s still hugely expensive to recruit and hire even for nontechnical roles—around $18,000 for a project manager in the Seattle area (according to my local top recruiting sources behind closed doors and over martinis). They don’t want you to leave the room. There’s no one standing outside their door waiting to jump into the hot seat you just vacated. They’ll have weeks of work ahead of them to get another candidate to the same point in interviews and negotiations that you’re at right now. If they can spend an hour or so with you adding some benefits and a pay bump to your contract, they absolutely will, and with a sigh of relief.
If you’ve given too much and/or you named a number first, which they accepted, you can still use the responses above when negotiating intangibles in Tactic 3.
So how do you add some intangible benefits or a pay bump to your salary while still being a team player? Here’s the next tactic.
TACTIC 3: “This salary is not negotiable.”
This line is often used by companies who have a salary band that is based on some kind of “quantifiable” metric for parsing résumés. Have a master’s degree? Get a 5 percent pay bump. Have a CISSP? Get a 5 percent pay bump. Only a bachelor’s degree? Bottom of the salary band.
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First, bullcrap. As the positively magnificent Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent says in Ever After to Cinderella, “Nothing’s final until you’re dead, and even then, I’m sure God negotiates.” (I may have a hard time telling villainess from heroine in any movie where Anjelica Huston chews scenery.) Just because there’s no getting around the salary band doesn’t mean they don’t want you on board.
Second, the person you’re negotiating with is almost certainly unconnected with the team. You’ll be negotiating with a professional salary negotiator in human resources, and their job is to make you doubt yourself and your value just enough that you’ll take the first offer, gratefully. You don’t realize it, but they’re not reporting back to your team and future manager to tell them that you’re a hard case in negotiations; most of the time, your team and manager won’t even know what you’re being paid. That was the case with the woman I told you about at the beginning of this chapter. I’m still working on a way to effectively get women to understand their value, and I feel like it was a failure on my part that I didn’t say the right things to make her believe in herself enough to say what I’ll teach you next.
Third, here’s your script: “That’s a great place to start! I understand that you cannot go outside the salary band, so let’s work on finding other ways to get your offer commensurate with my others, because I love this company and I really want to find a way to work here. What can you do in the way of stock options and telecommuting? If you can contractually add two days a week where I don’t have to fight Seattle traffic, we’re all winners!”
Here’s what’s happening here: it’s the same tactic as before about being a team player, dressed up in “company policy.” It’s a little more difficult to get around, but I just shared the way you can do so. To use this response effectively, you need to really understand the value of the offer they’re making you and of what else they can offer. I’ll put up with a lot in a company that doesn’t make me leave my house to work with them, because in the Seattle area, traffic is so bad that most people consider any commute that has a bridge in it to be profoundly difficult to manage day to day (and let’s not even speak of the two-hour seven-mile commute from Redmond to Seattle across one bridge). This isn’t a random complaint—I get twenty to twenty-five hours of my life back (and hugely decreased associated costs like food and transportation) each week if I work remotely rather than commuting, and you should seriously consider that as an option for getting around salary band requirements.
Stock options are another possibility, but negotiating for equity and vested options is very complex, and I can’t give you general rules for it; each situation will be different. In a salary band situation, you’ll be trying hard to get other benefits that equate to real cash for you without causing the other person to break company policy. Do you walk or bike to work? Is there a paid parking pass benefit? Ask them to instead give you a transit pass or a velodrome membership (this one works like gangbusters in any company with pre- tensions of being green or socially conscious). Is there a paid gym membership you know you won’t use? Ask for a childcare credit in that same amount. That’s how you get around the salary band. (Unless it’s a government or academic job. There’s no negotiating there; take it or leave it.)
TACTIC 4: “This is the average market salary rate for people with your job description, so that’s why we’re offering it.”
They may justify it with a reference to Salary.com or Glassdoor .com. It’s hard to say no to this; we as humans are strongly trained to believe in fairness, and women are socialized to value being seen as team players. This negotiator is using a very common and manipulative tactic where you have to justify being unfair to others to get what you want.
Instead, try this: “I’m here and interested in this job because I think your company is extraordinary, not average. I don’t think you want to fill this company with average developers, and I don’t think you’d be offering me this opportunity if you did. Glassdoor has a salary for someone of my abilities and training at [number that is at least 20 percent more than what they cited you]. Is that a little closer to what the amazing people I’ve met so far have started at?”
Anytime someone tries to convince you that you should take an “average” salary, turn the tables on them by forcing them either to say out loud that you’re average or to backtrack and offer you more.
Practice with a partner right now. You need to know how it feels to speak each of these lines before you’re in a pressure-filled situation. It’s going to be very, very hard to say no to someone asking you to say yes to a job you want. Humans are built to cooperate with each other, and saying no to someone offering you money will be a difficult exercise for you. Work through it in advance to make sure you never say no. Think of it this way: you’re offering a better option that can make both sides happier and helping yourself in the process.