Last week, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced that the company paid $3 Million dollars to correct gender pay imbalances across its organization. Although this isn’t a huge number for a company of it’s size, it’s still telling that the firm found $3M in imbalances to fix in the first place. This means that when they ran the numbers they believed that women were earning less than men in the organization for roles of a similar level, and they decided to publicly fix this. But why was that the case in the first place?
As I approach my job negotiations for a senior-level position, and I’m incredibly uncomfortable with doing so, I remind myself that I have to negotiate because any male in my position would. As one woman, I’m not representative of all women, but I can say I find it incredibly hard to negotiate. As a woman, I may read negotiation advice and bring a request to the table based on research from online websites that give some idea of pay ranges. And, as a woman who doesn’t like to shake the boat, I’d typically pick the average to ask for because it feels uncomfortable to ask for anything more.
But I’m not an average woman, and I try to push myself to ASK. This gets harder and harder as the numbers get bigger. I always like to state that it is a PRIVILEGE to have this problem, but it is an issue nonetheless. According to this Harvard Business Review article, the Gender Pay Gap Widens as Women Get Promoted. Basically, the higher up in the organization a woman is, she is likely earning less than her male counterparts. A female executive earns 6.1% less than a male, compared to only a 2.2% gap in an individual contributor role.
The problem with negotiating as a woman is that you can’t win. There is plenty of research that shows women pay a higher social cost for negotiating. I’ve experienced this first hand. In my last role, I negotiated very well (in my opinion) but the I was reminded pretty much every single day from my boss that I was making “so much money” and this made me insecure and ultimately defeat myself in the role. I would have been more comfortable had I been earning less and not rocked the boat.
But what I come back to is this – my role is one that generates clear revenue for the business (well, if it doesn’t, I don’t get to stay for all that long.) I’m working for a for-profit organization in a revenue-generating role, and I deserve to be paid for it. Even then, I have no way to know if I’m overstepping — a man in a senior role can ask for anything. He may not get it, but it’s accepted that he’ll ask. A woman in a senior role worries she’ll offend someone. That’s just how it works.
The HBR article notes that while it’s not clear why female executives are paid less than men, it appears that women need sponsors in organizations more than they do mentors. My strategy has been to change jobs relatively frequently in order to move up and earn more. I would not feel comfortable negotiating for higher pay once I’m on a successful track within an organization. It’s at least a little easier to negotiate at the start — but the big question is, how often do men negotiate throughout the year when women do not? Do men ask for bigger raises each year, or do they request salary increases at a more regular frequency than women? Are the raises of similar frequency but just more substantial due to executive sponsors? These are questions no one seems to have a good answer for, so we’re all left in the dark.
In order to solve this problem, organizations need to be provided training from the top down and bottom up about negotiating. It’s tough to do this because it’s in the best interest of the organization to pay each employee as little as possible to keep them engaged and working as hard as they can. If one employee will accept less than another, this is good for the business, at least on paper. And if no one knows how much everyone else i making, how much can it hurt? But wouldn’t it be crazy if a business actually taught people how to negotiate and encouraged it, making typical negotiation timelines around promotions (official and non-official) more transparent? I wonder if anyone would do that. What Salesforce did is a good first step – but also a good PR move. How long will it be before those salaries are unequal again? And what can we do to fix that?
To start, I’m always going to ask for more, even when it makes me sick to my stomach, and even when I know that my likability factor is dinged, because in the long run to be successful, if you’re a woman, you can’t be liked. You can only be respected.