How I Learned to Negotiate ​a Higher Salary

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“I’ve never asked for more money. I’ve always just been happy to have the job offer.”

A brilliant young woman of color, Nina, recently said this to me in a conversation about women in the workplace. I immediately began offering her some how-to tips that would help her get past being overjoyed at receiving a job offer and moving her to a place of asking for what she needed to live her best life. But as I began speaking, I was quickly reminded of all reasons I didn’t always negotiate for my own fair compensation, including for the reason Nina stated. Here’s how I eventually learned that as a woman, and especially as a Black woman, I must negotiate a higher salary.

I was just happy to have the offer.  When I landed my first salaried position, I thought I was living large! I had accepted a job that I was indeed happy to have. But I didn’t negotiate a higher salary. Eventually, I found myself routinely behind the 8-ball when it came to savings, retirement, etc. My bills were paid but building any sort of cushion was nearly impossible. Once I realized that it would take me about 2 years to save enough money to cover a single month of expenses, I knew something had to change. So, I did what any relatively evolved young woman does when she realizes something must change. I began by assessing myself.

I minimized my expenses. I really enjoyed preparing my own meals and dwelling in spaces that were styled to make me feel inspired and safe. I shopped at consignment stores learned the difference between clothing, furniture, and decor that was used and that which had outlived its usefulness. I DIY’ed everything from painting my apartment to refinishing much of my own furniture. In short, I was into minimalism before minimalism was a thing…and I loved it. Then I realized that although my mindset had changed to better manage the salary I did have, and I had learned to buy what I needed instead of what I thought I wanted, the one thing I still needed to live the joyous life I desired, was more income. Remembering that I previously convinced myself that I could make it work with the salary I had, I needed some validation that the salary I desired was indeed a possibility. So, I did what any millennial would do when they have a question.

I did some research to determine my value. A quick google search showed me that there was average wage data available for just about every job out there. I realized that some people with the same skill set as me, were receiving compensation well above that average and some were receiving salaries well below it. I was just to the left of that average. I eventually talked to peers who held similar positions, had similar skill sets, and similar levels of experience. I quickly realized that there were 3 key factors that differentiated me from my peers who made more than me for doing similar work. 1) They tended to be male. 2. They tended to be white. 3. They all negotiated the salary they wanted. My experience mimicked data that suggests Black women are paid 65 cents for every dollar paid to non-Hispanic white men. When I realized every job I ever applied for asked about my previous salary history to help determine what they would offer, it dawned on me that not negotiating for a higher salary as a young professional, could have a long-term effect on my finances for the rest of my working years. This single bit of knowledge inspired me to battle the fear that previously left me content with just having a job offer.

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I found the courage by focusing on the coins. The first time I negotiated for a higher salary, I was afraid. I was offered an exciting position that I was indeed happy to have. But this time, that just wasn’t enough. I knew what it was like to have I job I enjoyed but one that didn’t fairly compensate me for my time and talent. I was keenly aware of the emotional labor I performed in order make those around me more comfortable and to feel accepted and valued. I knew the average salary for the position I was offered and (perhaps more importantly) I knew what I needed to live at or above the threshold I set for my life. The initial offer I received was slightly below that threshold. So, I had to ask for more money.

I learned to ask for what I needed. After receiving the initial offer, I spoke with the hiring manager to present and justify my counter-offer, which included an increase in salary and a modest amount of funding for professional development. After a few days, I received a call. They rejected my offer but countered. I somehow had the presence of mind to say that I would think about it and get back to them in 24 hours. I really wanted to cry because, of course, I needed the job. Also by this point, my pride was wounded. I ran through all the possible reasons why I must not have been good enough and all the reasons I didn’t even deserve the job in the first place. Imposter syndrome was alive and well and speaking very loudly. The next day, to my surprise, they called me back with a new offer, slightly above their initial offer and slightly below my counter offer. I accepted.

In retrospect, my negotiating yielded only a small increase. But what I gained in confidence and negotiation experience was worth the small loss. I have since negotiated for more money with just about every position I’ve been offered. Sometimes I was not successful in increasing the bottom line. But most times, I walked away with considerably more money than I was initially offered, simply because I was willing to ask for compensation in relation to my value.

At the end of the day, that’s what the negotiation is about. Value. As Black women, we must ask ourselves if we deserve a higher salary. If the answer is ‘yes’, figure out why and say it out loud until there is no doubt in your mind. Then suddenly, asking for more money becomes the best next right move. And let’s be honest, the answer is almost always a resounding ‘yes’.

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