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Closing the Gender Wage Gap Starts with Everyday Negotiating

Guest contributor Mary Kay Devine is the Director of Community Initiatives at Women Employed, an advocacy organization that has been opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women since 1973. Read on to learn her strategies on everyday negotiating for women in the workplace. 

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 Mary Kay Devine teaches a workshop on Everyday Negotiating for International Women's Day at 1871. 

Guest Author: Mary Kay Devine, Women Employed

Mute the Voice in Your Head

If you’re a woman, you probably have a voice in your head that whispers:

"Are you sure you’re as good as you think you are?”

Or maybe it says:

"Why can’t you be happy with what you’ve got? Don’t you have enough already?”

Or perhaps, even though you’re very successful, you hear that voice warning:

“Watch out. Don’t get pushy. . . “ 

I recently had the opportunity to lead a salary negotiation workshop for women at 1871. And since most of us have heard this voice at one time or another during our careers, I read these questions aloud from the book Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, so we as a group could wrestle this voice to the ground and work together to sharpen our negotiating skills.

Understand the Gender Pay Gap

Negotiation is a key strategy for closing the pay and value gap in the workplace. If we hope to see a change, it is important that women sharpen their negotiating skills. But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page when we discuss the gender pay gap. According to a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the pay gap is calculated by comparing the salaries of women and men who work full time, year-round in all career fields. On average, women still only earn 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.


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Though women on average have made great progress, not all women have benefited equally. As the above graphic shows, most women of color are paid substantially less than white women: Black and African American Women earn 63 cents, Native Women earn 57 cents, and Latina and Hispanic Women earn 54 cents for every dollar a white man earns.

Obviously, these lost cents on the dollar add up to big bucks over a 40-year career. A fact sheet from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), projects that white women will lose $565K, Black women $840K, Native women $935K, and Latina and Hispanic women will lose more than $1 million compared to white, non-Hispanic men. Read Women Employed’s recent post to learn more about the gender wage gap and how interview questions related to salary history perpetuate these inequalities.


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A key strategy in the fight to close the gender wage gap is to ban salary history questions during the hiring process. That’s why Women Employed is championing the No Salary History Act to strengthen the Illinois Equal Pay Act by preventing employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s previous salary history. Plain and simple, a salary offer should be based on a person’s qualifications and the responsibilities of the job.

Why is it important to prevent employers from asking these questions? Consider the scenario where a woman makes a move from nonprofit work to corporate, or she takes time away from her career when she has a child or cares for an ill family member, then she re-enters the workforce with a salary history that is likely lower than the current wage range. This results in the boss getting his new employee at a discounted price and the woman continuing her career trajectory with lost wages.

We invite you to join our Action Network so we can keep you informed on the status of this bill, and we’ll let you know when it’s time to contact your state legislators to ask them to support the No Salary History Act. Until we successfully eliminate salary history questions, we encourage job applicants to: research, redirect, and focus on the job requirements. But a ban on salary history questions alone won’t close the gender wage gap. Another critical tactic is for women as individuals to become better negotiators.

Practice the Four Steps of Negotiating

For many people, the word negotiation conjures images of peace treaties and labor agreements. As Linda Babcock, Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon and Ask For It, author says:

“Negotiation is not the exclusive territory of labor leaders and diplomats...Put simply, negotiation is a tool to help change the status quo when change requires the agreement of another person.”

During my workshop, I presented four key steps of negotiations.

Step 1 — Understand Your Value.

  • Ask yourself what positive measurable results have you achieved that spotlight the value you have created—or saved—for your team?
  • Consider which of your accomplishments (awards, recognitions, certificates), skills, and work experiences are relevant to the position or promotion.
  • Reflect on compliments and positive reviews you’ve received at work—particularly from your boss regarding your work successes.

Once you understand your value, develop a brief “elevator pitch” summarizing your skills, accomplishments, and work experiences. Your pitch must include a goal or an ask!

Step 2 — Do Accurate Research.

  • Equip yourself with objective research to prepare for negotiations. There are many great salary research sites like, Glassdoor, and Indeed that will help you confirm you’re looking at correct job titles, salary ranges, lists of benefits, as well as negotiation tips. Check out this list of the best salary information websites.
  • Know who has the information you need. Who are the “insiders” of your organization, the ones who really make things happen? Who does your boss go to for advice? Which of your coworkers have been with the organization the longest and have institutional knowledge?
  • Understand how decisions are made. When are decisions made about raises? When is the best time to provide input to the decision maker? Are promotions made according to a strict schedule? How does your organization collect information regarding performance?

Step 3 — Prepare Your Strategy.

  • Aim High. Your negotiation strategy can differ depending on whether you’re looking for a new job or preparing to ask for a raise or promotion. Regardless of which phase of negotiations you’re entering, stop and consider how would the situation look if you were negotiating for your daughter, sister, colleague, or a woman you’re mentoring. Chances are, you would aim much higher for someone else than you would for yourself.
  • What Would You Love to Get, Not What You Can Live With. In Ask for It, author Linda Babcock encourages women to consider what they would love to get, not what they can live with. Don’t think “They probably won’t balk at 5% more.” Rather, approach negotiations with the attitude that, “I’m going to shoot for 10% more because that would make me feel fairly recognized for my hard work and dedication.” Don’t start your negotiations by thinking, “I’m well paid. My title doesn’t matter.” Instead, you should consider, “What title would describe my real responsibilities and convey the authority I need to do my job?”
  • Consider Win-Win Negotiations. I strongly encouraged folks to go to the library or visit their favorite book store to purchase Babcock’s Ask For It book to build an understanding of cooperative bargaining. The gist is to approach negotiations believing there’s enough “pie” for both of us, and you try to understand the needs, goals, constraints, and pressures that each side is experiencing. Then look for a variety of ways to satisfy those interests.

Step 4 — Practice! Practice! Practice!

You must build your negotiation muscle just like you would when training to run a marathon.

  • Practice Negotiation Sentence Starters. “Thank you for meeting to discuss the details of your offer.” “We share common goals, such as________________.” “Given my previous experience doing_________________, I believe this is a fair salary range for this position.”
  • Set Yourself Up for Success. Consider what makes you feel most confident and relaxed. Think about a very specific instance where you felt powerful. Do you feel strong when you look great? Does exercise help to calm your nerves and boost your energy?
  • Take Your Time. You’re allowed to slow things down, “I’m feeling a little rushed. I want to make a good decision here. Can we take a minute to review where we are at?” Ask open-ended questions to seek more information, “What are your thoughts about what I just said?”
  • Take a Break. If you feel like you’re up against a wall, or it’s become apparent the current time isn’t good for the other party, take a break. “Can we talk again tomorrow when I’ve had some time to consider what you’ve said?” “You probably need some time to think about it.”
  • Don’t Waste Your Time. Since a starting salary range is frequently not posted in job ads, applicants should ask for it. You can say something like, “To make sure we’re making good use of everyone’s time, what is the salary range for this position?” The employer will likely ask how much you’re currently earning. You can respond by offering your salary range, “I’m focusing on opportunities between $50,000-$60,000.” The employer will let you know if this works for them or not, then you can decide how you want to proceed.
  • Consider the Likability Factor. In Babcock’s Ask for It book, she points to multiple research studies (including her own) describing how women and men are perceived differently in negotiations. While men might be seen as no-nonsense and ambitious, women can be perceived as bossy, pushy, and difficult.

Despite all the gains women have made, the double standard continues that society expects women to be nice. While this might make us mad, let us consider the advice former University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman offers to women--to be “relentlessly pleasant.” This involves:

— Choosing words carefully.

— Using non-threatening tone of voice.

— Making sure non-verbal behavior communicates what a nice and friendly person you are.

The Punchline

I concluded my workshop by sharing this simple truth: if you’re never hearing no, you’re not asking enough.


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Negotiate for Yourself, Fight for Equal Pay for All Women.

As you sharpen your personal negotiating skills, I encourage you to keep learning. Check out my Everyday Negotiating presentation to access additional resources, and find an AAUW Work Smart local workshop for more practice.

This work isn’t just about negotiating for ourselves, but fighting to ensure that all women can achieve their aspirations and support themselves and their families. That’s exactly what Women Employed has been doing every day for 45 years. From passing laws decades ago that made sexual harassment illegal to recently passing paid sick days in Chicago and Cook County, Women Employed has been on the forefront of every economic advance or working women.

Join us in the work of building brighter futures for all working women. 

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Rally for Equal Pay. Tuesday, April 10 from noon – 1:15 p.m. at Daley Plaza, hear from advocates and TV personalities, elected officials and Women Employed’s President and CEO, Iliana Mora, on how we can work together to achieve equal pay. Then spread the word on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (we’ll be raising our voices using hashtag #EqualPayDay). Click here for rally details.

Celebrate 45 years of Speaking Up, Speaking Out, and Making Change! Thursday, May 31 from 11:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Hear our vision for women’s equity and justice and meet today’s changemakers. You’ve seen our panel of speakers on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, on national news, in magazines, and on college campuses…Now see them in Chicago at The Working Lunch. Get your tickets today!

 Sign up to stay connected and stay informed

Join our email list! Sign up for WE-Zine, our monthly e-newsletter, to get news and insider updates on our issues, perspectives from WE staff, and interviews with partners and advocates. Our Action Network makes activism easy for busy people—you’ll receive timely alerts and legislative updates on our issues (including the No Salary History Act).

I look forward to connecting with you sometime soon. In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter @MaryKayDevine, and please follow @WomenEmployed.


About the Author

Mary Kay Devine is the Director of Community Initiatives at Women Employed, an advocacy organization that has been opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women since 1973. On International Women’s Day, Devine hosted the Everyday Negotiating workshop as part of 1871’s #PressForProgress day-long programming. Download her full presentation here to equip you with the attitude, perspective, and skills to demonstrate your value to decision makers.

The opinions expressed here by 1871 guest writers are their own, not those of 1871. 

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