On Negotiating as a Woman

Sometimes it takes the perspective of time before we’re able to see situations for what they really are.

Recently, I had some insight into my job negotiations last year and I realized why women can have such a hard time negotiating for pay.

Last year, I started a new part-time gig as an ESOL Teacher for a school district in the next town over (an ESOL Teacher is a Teacher for Speakers of Other Languages, also known as an ESL Teacher). I applied for the job because my hours at my first district are quite low, and this district was very close to my house. I suspected the district was fairly desperate for a teacher.

The interview went great, and the superintendent who was interviewing me essentially offered me the job halfway through the interview. Despite this, when it was time to talk dollars, though,  I wrestled with myself a bit before telling her my hourly rate.

On Negotiating as a Woman--www.thethreeyearexperiment.com

There were a couple of reasons for this.

One is, I’m new to being paid hourly. As a contractor, my hourly rate is higher than my salaried wage. This is because I’m not fully compensated for all my prep time for my classes. I’m not paid for miles, insurance, retirement, or any other benefits. If a child doesn’t show up for class, I’m not paid. The school district doesn’t have to pay half of my Social Security wages, which is a full 6.2% of my earnings they would pay if I were a W-2 employee. When I started working as an ESOL Teacher, the hourly rate felt high to me and I had no experience in the field, so no one to ask.

But over time, I’ve realized that my hourly rate isn’t as high as I thought. At the end of the year last year (2016), my first full year as a contracted worker, I realized that I made substantially LESS per year than I did as a salaried worker. Part of the reason is because I worked less hours and didn’t work summers, but part of the reason is probably because I’m probably under-compensated for my time. It took me a while to realize this.

Since I’m paid and compensated hourly, it was difficult for me to know exactly how much I’d make as a contractor until the year was up. I often don’t know exactly when I’ll work because of testing, field trips, and holidays. I can estimate, but it’s just that–an estimate.

However, when I was negotiating with this school district, I was still wrestling with the “large amount” of money I made per hour. So when the superintendent looked at me and asked my rate, I had an internal struggle. I don’t know if she could see it on my face. I finally told her my rate, but rounded down to the dollar below.

Something interesting happened after that. She started in on a bit of a verbal tear. “That’s a LOT of money,” she told me. “I don’t know if we can pay you that. I don’t know if my current ESOL Teacher makes that much money. I can’t pay you more than her. I don’t know if we have the budget for that. I just don’t know if that will work.”

As she spoke, I began to feel uncomfortable. Was I being unreasonable? Was the hourly amount I charged too high? I was somewhat comforted by the fact that the other school district I worked for had set the rate, but I knew that her school district was much poorer, and had way less resources. If the other ESOL Teacher made less than I did, that was too bad. I didn’t want to put her job in jeopardy.

I’ve done this many times over the years. When I joined a non-profit, I knew that they didn’t have a lot of resources, and I saw the yearly budget, so I felt guilty that asking for more salary meant that it would be cut somewhere else. I felt bad that this “poorer” school district couldn’t afford my rate. But these were stories that I’d made up, and not necessarily representative of the truth.

And more importantly, they had nothing to do with my worth, with the immense value I brought to these organizations. 

Luckily, I’d had a talk with myself before coming in to the interview, and I’d told myself that this job wasn’t for me if I couldn’t earn a certain rate. I’d thought of the lowest possible rate that I’d accept in my head, and it was about $10 less per hour than I quoted her. But something kept me mostly quiet in the negotiating room. I don’t know what it was, exactly. But I let her rant and allowed myself to be quiet. The only thing I said was, “my other district set my rate.” In hindsight, I shouldn’t have shared this fact, but I’m sure I wanted her to feel that I wasn’t asking an unreasonable amount.

I’m a person who usually jumps to fill the silence, but this time I just waited. It turned out to be an excellent strategy.

She ranted a bit more, and I finally said, “I hope you’re able to make this work in your budget, because the student [I would be working with] certainly needs the help.” She threw out how she might need to offer me a lower rate, because of her budget. I was non-committal and made vague comments like, “I hope we can find a way to work together that works for both of us.” We ended the meeting, I repeated that I hoped she’d be able to make it work, because I’d very much like to work with their district, and I left.

About two days later she emailed me and formally offered me the job. At the rate I’d given.

This year, after I’ve been working in the district for about four months, not counting the summer, I’ve had several people in the know share that this superintendent is known for, shall we say, inflating the facts, or misrepresenting the truth. She is a very nice person, don’t get me wrong. But after having a few months to think about the negotiation, I realize that she tried her best to bully and shame me into a lower rate.

I’ve also realized that my hourly rate is very reasonable, and probably slightly under what others charge. I haven’t asked anyone yet but I hear hints at Professional Development events and Networking Meetings, such as “this job’s only paying $X per hour” (more than I make). Or colleagues who do slightly different work, but earn a much higher hourly rate. Luckily, I hope to finish my Master’s degree by this summer, so I’ll have a good reason to raise my rate.

I recently finished a book called Know Your Worth, Get Your Worth: Salary Negotiations for Women. It’s written by a friend of mine named Olivia Jaras (she’s Chilean like Mr. ThreeYear). In the book, she talks about the variety of reasons women have for undervaluing themselves. About 31% of women don’t negotiate the pay they’re offered when they start a job. Some of this is because women feel uncomfortable negotiating, but some of it is related to the fact that women don’t realize what they’re worth in the market. There’s a story in the book of a C-level executive who realized that her colleagues were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars more than she was because she hadn’t negotiated her salary when she took the job. She hadn’t done any research on her market worth so she grossly undervalued herself.

Lizard letters--www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
One of my English Learner students has a fascination with reptiles.

The title of the book is truly the crux of the matter–as women, we don’t often know or recognize our dollar value in the employment market, so we accept less pay. 

In the past, it was my strategy to always negotiate my pay, as a matter of course. When I lived in Chile, I was offered a job at the prestigious Catholic University’s Business School, and the dean offered me a salary that I thought was very fair. But I negotiated for about 5% more pay just so I wouldn’t accept the first number he threw out.

But over the years, my strategy has changed. When I rejoined the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom for seven and a half years, I felt grateful to be offered any employment, so I accepted the first offer I was given. I felt grateful to find a flexible part-time job and I wanted to make it work. I later negotiated and increased my salary by 25%, but it was low to begin with, so I didn’t increase it much. When I changed careers in 2015, I didn’t realize I could negotiate my hourly rate, and I had no information about what other ESOL contractors were earning. I did negotiate that my school district pay for five of my master’s classes, but I did it out of desperation. 

Olivia’s company offers a service that uses proprietary information to give women a really good idea of what they should be earning. I haven’t used it yet, but I’m thinking about it when I reset my hourly rates.

One of my takeaways from Olivia’s book and my negotiating experience last year is that unless we’re armed with knowledge [and by that I mean cold, hard money facts], we don’t have the upper hand in negotiating. And I think we do ourselves a disservice as a gender, because we can tend to shy away from talking about money.

If, instead, we were more forthright about salary in networking meetings and when mentoring younger female professionals, we could help each other understand our worth in the market.

Another take-away is that as women, we often hesitate to negotiate because we want different things from a job. I want flexibility and limited hours and I know there aren’t as many of those jobs available. However, I’m learning that what’s more important is my personal worth in the market. One thing I know about myself is that I do an excellent job at my job. I need to do the work to find out what the market is willing to pay for that.

How about you, fellow female workers? How do you negotiate pay? Do you feel you’re fairly compensated? 

Author: Laurie

Hi. I’m Laurie, and my family and I have set out to double our net worth and move abroad in the next three years. Join us on our journey!

4 thoughts on “On Negotiating as a Woman”

  1. Such a great article! It’s so important that women keep talking about this issue and learn from each other.

    I’ve often fallen into the “I’m so relieved to be offered this job that I don’t want to jeopardize it” trap and I cringe thinking about the times I didn’t neogotiate.

    When I was up for my last raise, I made sure to practice my neogotiation beforehand and got what I asked for. Good job on staying strong during your negotiation!

    1. Thanks so much Emily, and thanks for visiting!!

      It’s such a terrific suggestion to practice your negotiation skills. I agree–that practice is really important so you’re not flustered and unsure of what to say in the moment of the negotiation. Glad to hear you got what you asked for in your negotiation. Score!!

  2. I also worked with a company who was notoriously tight with the purse strings. After working a few contracts I asked for a raise of about .50 and was so pleased when they agreed to it – not because it made a difference, but because it was the gesture of it. It was definitely a ‘I’m grateful for this job, I don’t care what I’m paid’ sort of deal too. It’s led to some wild opportunities, but if I did it again, I think I would’ve negotiated for more, and sooner.

    I find that companies don’t generally want people to talk to their coworkers how much they’re being paid too. If x knows y gets more money, then she’ll want an equal raise! I always try to negotiate, as much as I can, even if it’s just a token amount. Those are joe-jobs though, and they’re nearly always at minimum wage. Rather be working than not though! And I think I’m definitely going to be ramping up the quality of work I’m looking for.

    That does make me wonder though: even if you’re worth it, if you’re overqualified and can’t contribute the fullest extent of your skills because of the restrictions of the job (hypothetically, I’m not saying that was your case :P) – can you really ask and get a higher rate?

    1. That is such a good point, Ms. Raggedly. If you know what your coworkers are paid then you have way more power in negotiating. It’s really true in that case that knowledge is power.

      Yours is a good question, about asking for and getting a higher raise. In my case, if I were a full-time teacher, and on the salary scale, then no, I couldn’t ask for a raise. The union negotiates the contract with the school and the teachers get the price they qualify for depending on # of years and level of education.

      But as a contractor, I can negotiate, because ESOL teachers are scarce in NH, and many low-incidence districts (those districts with only a few English Learner kids) can’t find teachers to come in for the small amount of hours needed. I guess if you’re in a position where you can’t negotiate your day job, that’s when you’d start your own business, if your skills are that in demand?

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