5 Negotiating Tips For When You Think You're Underpaid

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
If your newsfeed is anything like mine, in recent years it’s been buzzing with stories, statistics, and hashtags about the gender pay gap. Campaigns like #LeanInTogether, #girlboss, and most recently, #nastywoman have all highlighted why women need to take the proverbial bull by the horns when it comes to advocating for fair pay. Systemic sexism and a gender pay gap exists in many workplaces, and pay equity laws have been enacted at the federal level and in some progressive-leaning states to start to address this. But what can you do on an individual level if you find out you’re a victim of this pay gap?
It’s simple (and not so simple): Start by asking for more. It’s likely the guy in the cubicle next to you already has. In a widely cited study for her book Women Don’t Ask, Carnegie Mellon’s Linda Babcock asked a group of male and female MBA graduates if they’d negotiated their first offers of employment. She found that only 7% of the women surveyed engaged in salary negotiations, while 57% of the men had. That’s not altogether surprising — many women fear that asking for a higher salary or a better title makes them appear aggressive and unlikeable. The sad truth is that women are more likely than men to be penalized for asking for more simply because of tacit societal gender norms. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Buying into the misconception that advocating and negotiating for yourself is only for “pushy broads” is like relegating women to a permanent Mad Men secretary status. None of us can afford to do that, and there’s a good financial reason why.
Not negotiating or asking for more can cost a working woman over $500,000, on average, over the course of her lifetime. Stanford’s Margaret A. Neale explains it like this: “If you [don’t negotiate] and your [male] counterpart who negotiates are treated identically by the company — you are given the same raises and promotions — 35 years later, you will have to work eight more years to be as wealthy as your counterpart at retirement.” Eight more years. When you look it at that way, it seems ridiculous to not even try.
But asking for raises and promotions often makes people uncomfortable. Many women I speak with would rather avoid the conversation with their employers altogether, even if failure to have the discussion comes at great personal, professional, and economic cost. Just like any other new exercise, adjusting your mindset to view self-advocacy as an advantageous tool takes practice. You will not always be successful, and you will not always get all of what you want, but push yourself out of your comfort zone and give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at how often asking gets results. Certainly, not asking just gets you nowhere.
You should also know that the law is on your side. States like New York, Massachusetts, and California are using pay transparency laws to target the wage gap. With the Act to Establish Pay Equity, Massachusetts became the first state to make it illegal for employers to ask for a job applicant’s wage history. In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued the Pay Transparency Executive Order, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who ask about or discuss their wages or those of their coworkers and further limits exceptions for gender pay differences under New York Labor Law 194. Pay transparency not only empowers women to ask for wages they deserve, but it also exposes flaws in the pay structure of companies that wouldn’t otherwise examine them and gives legal weight to your case for equal pay in the negotiation process.
Because I know how difficult this process is for women, I’ve put together some suggestions to help you along on your path to asking for more, whether you’re asking for a raise for the first time, speaking up because you found out you’re underpaid, or just going into an annual compensation review.
Ahead, five tips to get you started.
Nicole Page is an employment attorney and partner at the New York firm of Reavis Parent.