Women, Money, and Why Asking for More Is Always a Good Idea

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Boy oh boy. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, a tech veteran but new to the big Microsoft job since February, really goofed last week at an Arizona tech conference for women. Maria Klawe, a software engineer, former Princeton department head, and member of Microsoft’s board of directors, asked him about the problem of women getting paid less than men in technology positions.

“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” Nadella told a confounded (and predominantly female) audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing on Thursday.

Ascribing to mortals the fictional abilities of comic book heroes, Nadella advised that women embrace their innate ‘super powers’ and confidence, and trust a system that pays women 78% as much as men. … “That might be one of the initial super powers, that quite frankly, women (who) don’t ask for a raise have,” he told the straight-faced Klawe. ‘It’s good karma. It will come back.”

There was an immediate response from the audience. Faith in the system? Not asking for more money equals a super power? Good karma? As word got out via Twitter and other forms of social media (this was a tech conference, after all), the outcry was fierce. Nadella quickly realized he’d misspoke or been misinterpreted. He has since has thoroughly backpedaled.

But even if Nadella’s only mistake was an innocent, unconscious bias about women, his reassurances that women can trust the system that has led to gender discrimination in workplaces and a painful gender pay gap demonstrate clearly what we women are up against at work and in our society at large.

Women, who currently outnumber men in colleges and many professions, still earn only about 78 cents to every dollar men earn. This is unfair, morally questionable, and destructive to women over the course of our lifetimes, often robbing us and our children of financial security and self-esteem. Most working women have experienced subtle (and not subtle) prejudice, lost opportunities, and assumptions about our ambition. Research shows that moms in particular face wage discrimination, from men, women, and often our own partners at home.

I, for one, don’t want any kind of female superpower that leads to earning less money. After 15 years in corporate America, including stints at Johnson & Johnson, The Washington Post, and Leo Burnett — plus an MBA and Wharton and a nice certificate from Harvard Law School’s famed seminar on negotiations — here’s what I’ve got to pass on to women looking to put a little more cha-ching in our paychecks.

First – recognize how challenging and uncomfortable negotiating is. Few people, even hugely successful businesswomen and politicians, are born salespeople, especially when it comes to selling ourselves. Women receive subtle societal messages from our earliest days: it is unfeminine, socially risky, and even morally questionable (think: prostitution) for women to be assertive, especially when it comes to getting paid. Not coincidentally, these nefarious messages are precisely what Satya Nadella tapped into when he made his goof, and it is why women responded so viscerally to what he said.

Second – research your profession and your position level through Salary.com or by talking to recruiters or industry sources. Having benchmarked facts on your salary level from an independent industry source adds to your credibility and confidence. And it usually surprises the person on the other side of the desk or telephone.

Enlist a negotiating buddy (male or female) with whom you can role-play the “ask” and who will push you when you lose your nerve (which most of us do at some point). We all need a negotiating wingman.

Always – ALWAYS – ask for more money when you get a job offer or promotion.

Don’t ask once and then back down. Sometimes you have to ask multiple times, firmly and with different arguments and justifications. Ask for a higher salary. A higher bonus. More vacation time. Flexible hours. Ask for more than you want. You may not get it all, so you need to be able to concede something and still walk away satisfied.

Be ready to close. Even if you are not a natural salesperson, have a solid sentence ready about why you deserve more compensation. Practice this soundbite in front of the mirror, in front of your dog, in front of your negotiating wingman.

Don’t waste any time feeling guilty, embarrassed, or greedy about asking for more money. Think instead how great it will feel to get it, and how nice it will feel to pay your mortgage or buy your children a good winter coat with the money you earned.

Last – think of how much you’ve learned negotiating with your children. Did they listen the first time you asked them to use a fork? Do they need your assertiveness to clean up their room? To finish their homework? To not drink and drive? We gals, especially a few years into the mommy gig, become skilled, creative, accomplished negotiators – we just need to capitalize on these talents with the children at work, in addition to the ones at home.

When in your life did you wish you’d asked for more, at work or at home? What advice can you give other women today?

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