“I have five years of experience in this industry and this woman is telling me I’m barely worth $46,000.” That’s what Cynthia, a San-Francisco based professional working in international education was thinking after negotiating her salary and benefits resulted in her job offer being withdrawn.
“I was really sad. A little bit angry. I even stopped looking for a job for around two months,” she told me.
It wasn’t the first time Cynthia had tried to negotiate. After all, this was the era of “girlboss” and “knowing your worth (then adding tax)”. Where complicated questions of workplace equity were reduced to Instagram-friendly motivation like, “Just ask for more, the worst they can say is no.”
“A more realistic version of that saying would be, the worst they can do is demean you, gaslight you, tell you that you don’t have the skills and experience that you do and tell you that you don’t actually care about working at their company,” says Caroline, a 26-year-old woman working in tech, who also had a job offer withdrawn after asking to negotiate the salary and benefits.
However well-meaning, career advice often dismisses the fears women, people of color, nonbinary individuals and other marginalized workers have around workplace negotiation – like losing a job offer.
But as Caroline found after confiding in some friends, “I’ve talked to three other women that said, ‘Yes, this happened to me. I tried to negotiate and the company either ghosted me or rescinded the offer.’ And we’re still getting told, ‘Just ask, just ask.’”
While encouraging negotiation is not a bad thing, the existing dialogue too often overlooks the role of sexism, racism and other biases in the process – like the fact that women and people of color are equally likely to ask for raises and promotions but are less likely to receive them. And that when they do negotiate, they’re more likely to experience backlash and penalties.
One 2018 study on racial bias even quantified these costs finding that “each time a black job-seeker was perceived to have made an offer or counteroffer, it corresponded in the receipt of over $300, on average, less in starting salary.”
“They’re like, “Oh, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? The worst thing is that they can say no.” But the worst thing is they can send you a physical written offer letter and then retract it two weeks later,” Deborah, a Brazilian-American video content producer told me. “The people that I have mostly seen give that advice come from middle-class backgrounds, are well-educated, white, more often than not male, though white women do it too,” she added.
“Negotiation is a remedy that has worked for white men to raise their salaries, but it is not one that is universally applicable, particularly when bias is at play,” says Richika Tulshyan, author of “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace”. “Simply expecting people from underestimated backgrounds to ask for a raise will not close the wage gap,” she adds.
After her own experience of losing a job offer for initiating a negotiation, Deborah immediately accepted the next job offer she received saying, “At that point I was like, “I will not risk anything happening to this opportunity. I am accepting immediately.””
What these stories and the data make clear is that it’s not that women, people of color and other marginalized workers don’t speak up or assert themselves or negotiate. It’s that the penalties and backlash they disproportionately face for doing so can change the rest of their careers.
In Cynthia’s case, it meant leaving the industry altogether, “The real turning point is that I decided not to pursue my career in international education anymore. Having both of these negotiations not work out left a really bad taste in my mouth for the whole industry,” she said. “If I’m living in pretty much the most expensive city in America, and I’m being told I’m ungrateful for asking for more than $45,000 a year with five years of experience in that industry, I didn’t see a lot of opportunity for me.”
But the most troubling pattern I’ve seen play out in the aftermath of these experiences is the extent to which these women end up blaming themselves:
“I did feel like, Damn, should I have just left it alone? Should I have not pushed hard on the salary? Should I have not had all those questions about the work life balance? I was definitely blaming myself.” – “Carla”
“You feel stupid for thinking that you could negotiate. You feel worthless – like they really don’t value you at all. And that your work isn’t really worth anything.” – “Nadia”
“I felt extremely defeated for years. I’m still nervous. I actually just started working with a therapist again and she said that I have a ton of imposter syndrome. And I do, because look at what happens when you’re working in an industry and you are trying your best and working your hardest and you’re just constantly kicked. You feel like, oh, I don’t deserve to be here.” – Lindsey
After a lifetime of hearing “it never hurts to ask” and “the worst they can say is no”, it’s no wonder.
If the worst they can say is “no” and not only do they say “no”, but they withdraw the job offer or lay you off two weeks later, there must be something wrong with you, right?
What if instead, these women were told the truth. That regardless of the quality of your work, bias and backlash can still diminish the offer you end up receiving, or undermine your perceived competence, likability and leadership skills, or discount you from advancement and promotions, or threaten your job or offer altogether. And while that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth negotiating, it does mean you have a better chance of being prepared for those responses.
The worst they can say is not “no”.
The worst they can do is question your experience, your competency and your value. The worst they can do is label you ‘difficult’ or ‘not a great fit’ for asking for more, discounting you from the advancement opportunities you’re working to access. The worst they can do is rescind or withdraw your job offer altogether.
Dismissing these realities and continuing to give negotiation advice through a framework of what works for white men, doesn’t make these biases disappear.
What it does is leave marginalized workers unprepared for the responses their negotiation tactics may elicit – blaming themselves for speaking up and asking for what they deserve, instead of recognizing the flawed systems and structures that undermine them when they do.
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