Why Do Women Suck at Negotiating Salaries?


Why Do Women Suck at Negotiating Salaries?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ifelt the colour drain from my face when I heard the colleague-friend on the other end of the phone give me a number. He had half my experience, and made exactly as much as I did. Ironically, we were bitching about how poorly our industry paid, but not in a million years could I have imagined that a kid whose writing I often edited was being paid the same as me. It was like a sharp, stinging, sobering slap to the face.

I remember mumbling something unintelligible when it was my turn to disclose my salary. What was I going to tell him? For a few weeks, I marinated in the pool of misery that is self-doubt. Was I not good enough? Was my work less valuable? Did they not need me as much?

A few more weeks went by before I worked up the courage to call the man who had hired us both. I had to know. After some hemming and hawing about industry standards, it all boiled down to one thing: my salary negotiation skills. “You should have negotiated better,” he finally said.

While it was definitely better than being told that I wasn’t as good as I imagined myself to be, realising exactly how much I sucked at putting a monetary value to my work was a bitter pill to swallow. With growing disgust, I remembered all my pitiful attempts to broker better deals for myself. At least twice before, I had moved jobs without a raise. Barring one occasion, I had always accepted the first offer. I could remember just one occasion when I’d advocated for a mid-cycle raise. This particular employment offer was closed within a five-minute phone call during a car ride.  

What’s worse, I’m not the only one. According to a 2016 survey of over 2,000 American employees by Glassdoor, 68 per cent women accepted the salaries they were offered without negotiation. Even when they did negotiate, they were three times less likely to secure greater pay than men. A researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, while surveying graduating professional students, found that only 7 per cent women compared to 57 per cent men tried negotiating starting salaries.

Women, on the other hand will try to downplay their role and success to be more likeable.

Unsurprisingly, most women – who work across a variety of industries – that I spoke to had a similar story. Parita Patel, a Mumbai-based journalist, says she is “ashamed” of how bad she is at salary negotiation. “No matter how many people tell me I’m great at what I do, when I’m sitting across the table, discussing salaries, I can’t stop from falling into this black hole of believing this is really all that I’m worth.” Nidhi Agarwal, an Ahmedabad-based physiotherapist, suffers from the same crisis of confidence while demanding equal pay. “I was consistently the city-wide topper. And yet, when we started doing independent visits, male colleagues felt so much more comfortable demanding far more than I did. They never bargained on their fee beyond a point – the women doctors, on the other hand, sometimes did house calls for half our asking price. There is such a strong bias against women doctors among patients and their families, we didn’t want to lose out on what was coming our way.” Sanya K, a Delhi-based actress, tells me about all the times she accepted about far lesser than male co-actors for fear of being replaced by someone who would do the job for less. “In my industry, women are so easily replaceable that we’ve all just accepted that we’ll always be paid a fraction of what the men draw, no matter how talented or popular you are.”

Pop culture and societies across the world are filled with examples that echo these sentiments. In July 2017, BBC’s top female editors and anchors were shocked and humiliated to find out how poorly they were being paid compared to the men in equal positions. The highest-earning woman was making a staggering £1.7 million less than the highest-earning man. The infamous Sony leaks in 2014 revealed the considerable difference between what Jennifer Lawrence, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale were making for American Hustle. The men, predictably, had hammered out a deal that meant they each got almost 30 per cent more of the profits than Lawrence did. In 2018, Hollywood media reported that Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million for reshooting parts of All the Money in the World – a film that drew great press for dropping Kevin Spacey in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations – a job that his female co-star, Michelle Williams, did for a mere $1,000. Closer home, Deepika Padukone, India’s highest paid female celebrity according to the Forbes India Celebrity List for 2018, makes less than Salman Khan, the highest paid male celebrity.

So why have I, and so many women like me, spent large parts of our careers settling for lowball offers, far under the value that our experience merited? For all our idealism and outspoken feminism, when it is time to bat for ourselves in the most elementary of ways necessitated by the adult world, why do we consistently fail ourselves?

For starters, we’ve grown up seeing women’s labour as something the world is entitled to — for free. Most of us have seen our mothers and aunts slave away — raising children, running the home, making sure that the lives of the men around them functioned as smoothly as possible, without any monetary value attached to their work. We have seen women treat their careers (if they had one at all) as something that needed to be navigated around their central role as free caregivers. Naturally then, we tend to minimise our own contributions, and believe our work is worth a lot less. Money was something men earned, but women were given; obviously then, if we wanted more of it, we had to ask nicely, not assert that we deserved it. Tellingly, research has shown that for women, the language of negotiation is considered at odds with the emphasis on politeness that is placed on women’s behaviour — by themselves and by society.

After some hemming and hawing about industry standards, it all boiled down to one thing: my salary negotiation skills.

Even when we had women role models who worked and earned, we saw society view their money from a completely different lens. While men earned money to do important things like pay the bills and put food on the table, women did it to pass time or make some extra “pocket money” to “buy a new handbag”. A friend who works with one of the biggest businesses in India was once told by her patronising boss that she mustn’t complain about her poor increment because her husband — who worked for the same company — had received a handsome one.

The problem isn’t just about the economic value of money, it’s what the money represents: that female labour of every kind has consistently been treated as less valuable than work done by men. Research shows that women have to contend with a higher social cost of negotiation. When women self-advocate for better pay, they run a bigger risk of alienating recruiters than men. The assertiveness that is admired in men as a leadership skill, is viewed as the behaviour of a woman who is “too demanding” and “greedy”. A woman’s reticence to negotiate is based on intuitively — but accurately — knowing that she might be penalised for it far more than her male counterparts would.

A Mumbai-based recruiter, on condition of anonymity, tells me that while most multi-national companies and large corporate houses safeguard themselves against future lawsuits and biases by instituting policies to benchmark roles against industry standards for pay, women still end up getting screwed, come appraisal time. “Across industries and levels of hierarchy, women find it tough to articulate what they achieved and why they deserve great increments. Men have no such compunctions. They will claim deserved and even undeserved credit. Women, on the other hand will try to downplay their role and success to be more likeable. That’s one reason why they don’t get the promotions and salary bumps they deserve. On the other hand, if they do talk about their achievements, they are considered braggarts and aggressive, and get poor evaluations for those reasons, which again means they get lesser money than the men at the same level. So yes, the cards are always stacked against them.”  

Clearly, while not being able to assertively ask for better pay is a big part of the unequal pay problem, it’s not the only variable. Individuals (mostly men) in positions of power, if not organisations, have a decidedly lower tolerance for women who know their professional worth.

Thankfully though, change, even though it might be gradual, is making its presence felt. While I was pitifully grateful for every opportunity that came my way as a rookie reporter, most millennial women I spoke to seemed far more secure in their worth than any of my peers and I were, at the start of our careers. Ironically, the sense of entitlement that they are often criticised for is helping these young women hold their ground. Surbhi Shah, a 22-year-old marketing executive sums up the sentiment best. “Boys are often quite lazy and careless because they’ve always had everything handed to them. They don’t know how to compromise for the greater good. My girl friends and I have so much to prove to ourselves and the people who think we’re lesser than the boys. If employers can’t see how much more valuable that hunger is, it’s their loss, not ours, really.”