Alison Christiana

I know, I know – it’s not polite to talk about money.  I think that’s a problem.

If no one talks about money, how does one effectively negotiate salary? How does one know how much to charge for a project? How do we attach value to effort? 

A million years ago, when I still wore yoga pants as actual pants, I interviewed for, and was offered, my dream job. I did not wear yoga pants to the interview, but I appreciate your curiosity.

At the end of that interview, I was offered the job, but I was not given an opportunity to negotiate my salary. It was presented as a fact.  As if everyone in my position across the organization earned the same amount… as if perhaps I might even be earning a little more than others, since I would be living and working in the most expensive city.  Thinking on it more deeply, I wonder if I didn’t just breeze past the part where I was supposed to negotiate.  Perhaps by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late.

I worked really hard. Really really hard. I loved my work. I loved the mission. I loved my colleagues.  I loved my community. My boss was challenging, to say the least (but that’s a story for another time).

At some point, I learned that one of my (male) counterparts was making at least double what I was earning.  He certainly had more experience coming in, and he was significantly older, but DOUBLE? That seemed excessive. 

My issue was not with his earning. Wisdom and experience should command a premium. I’m glad he was paid well. But I would have liked to see the rest of the otherwise-female team, including some just as wise and experienced, earning salaries to match.

Though I was not in a sales role, our output was measured. My city measured towards, if not at, the top of the pack month after month after month after month.  I was young and untrained in negotiation. When I made the case for a raise, I was met with a cost of living adjustment. I was grateful. But I was also frustrated.  I wondered how my colleagues approached salary.  Did they advocate for themselves? How? I never asked. I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At another job, I was paid 30K less than my (again male) predecessor.  A mentor of mine (I like to think of her as an angel) brought it to my attention.

This was another situation of an older and more experienced person commanding a higher rate. And another situation where I was too afraid the offer would come off the table if I pushed back. Another situation where I (naively) thought that performance would be enough to demonstrate my worth.

It wasn’t.  Is it ever? 

If you don’t advocate for yourself in the first conversation, if you aren’t comfortable setting your price and talking about money, you will not earn what your work is worth.

In another job, I saw that a man who was lower in the hierarchy was earning more than the female number two.  That didn’t sit right with me.  I discussed it with her.  It didn’t sit well with her either, but what could she do about it?  She wasn’t ready to put her job on the line.

My story is not unique.  I’m not the only woman who’s been afraid to negotiate salary.  Who’s been afraid to seem too forward, who’s felt punished for productivity, who’s felt disheartened by inequity.

Some are quick to point out that gender isn’t the only factor that dictates how much or how little a person will be paid. In addition to accreditation, education and experience,  personality, agreeableness, field of study, and whether or not a person becomes a parent (and whether or not that person becomes the primary parent)… are all factors.

And yet, according to Business Insider, across the board, for the same work, white women earn at most .80 for every dollar earned by men, and women of color earn .60.  I was curious how these numbers affect transgender and people who identify as non-binary, and while I’m glad to see inclusion in the studies, I’m disturbed by what I found through The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy estimates that “the average earnings of female-to-male transgender workers will increase slightly following their transitions, while average earnings of male-to-female transgender workers fall by nearly 1/3.” 

This is as disturbing as it is unacceptable.

I run my own company, and as such, I’m in a position to set my own rates.  I’m also in a position to set rates when I’m hiring crew. I do my best to remember what if feels like to be paid less for equal (or better) work and to pay the same rate regardless of gender or age.  And if the rate I have in the budget doesn’t match the rate they quote, I discuss the difference openly and honestly without pressure, and I never pull the job away just because they asked for more.

I also talk about money. I talk about it a lot. With people who earn more than I do and with people who earn less.  With people in the same field, and with people in other industries. I discuss earning, spending, and investing without shame. I encourage you to get there too. 

If the wage gap is real (and myriad studies indicate that it is) what can we do about it?

For those in a position to set salary:

  1. I urge you to consider how the wage gap affects a human’s sense of worth.  If that doesn’t make you feel something, consider how a worker’s sense of worth affects your bottom line. People are more invested when they feel valued.  People feel feel valued when they are paid for their work. Work product is better when people are invested.  It’s a win, win, win. 
  2. Assume that women are coming into a salary negotiation with the cards stacked against them. Give them an opening to talk money.  They have to do their part, but so do you. 
  3. Become a champion for rising stars.  If you’re a power holder, don’t be afraid to open doors.  Don’t be afraid to offer support.  And don’t be afraid to speak up on someone’s behalf, especially if you’re their supervisor.  No one will think you’re a creep, unless of course, you are a creep.

For those on the other side of the table:

  1. Know your own bottom line. Understand what you need to earn to live and save, understand what range is competitive in your market, then add at least 15% so when they negotiate down, you’ll still end up on top.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.  Prepare to position yourself  at the highest range of the salary spectrum.  Practice asking “what is the salary range for this position?” Practice talking about your skills and qualifications. Practice positive self talk.  You are skillful. Own your worth.
  3. Don’t be afraid to walk away.  But don’t assume that  talking about money will disqualify you for the position.  You did the hard work of standing out on a resume, of getting your foot in the door and of making it through a screening process. The next person on the interview schedule will be talking about money.  You mean business.  Prove it.