Mentors and Negotiators

By: Molly M. Goldwasser, Ed.D.

Manager of Institutional Assessment and Accreditation

Duke University

Peer-reviewed journals and popular media sources alike continue to publish articles about the gender-based wage gap. The U.S. Census Bureau statistic is well known: Women make, on average, 77 cents on the dollar than men make. Why does this gap persist and what can we do about it?

One contributing factor that perpetuates the wage gap is the negotiation gap. Women are significantly less likely to negotiate employment offers than their male counterparts. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, only 7% of recent female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate job offers, compared to 57% of their male classmates. Similar research suggests that women who do regularly negotiate accrue over $1 million in additional lifetime earnings than those who don’t. Recent studies indicate men are four times more likely to initiate [salary] negotiations and, when negotiating, they ask for more than do their female counterparts.

Recognizing the well-documented reasons why women often fail to negotiate – after having been guilty of a few myself – I continue to seek resources to mitigate my fear of negotiating. The best resource I have found to date: female mentors. Due in no small part to my mentors, I have been able to embrace my role in correcting these negotiation-failure trends early in my career. I’d like to share the following story with you as an example of how you, too, can empower and support your fellow female professionals.

I was staffing an alternative spring break trip with colleagues when I received a verbal offer for a new position. The initial salary offer was significantly less than what I was expecting. I felt deflated and I didn’t know what my next step should be. I explained the situation to one of my colleagues and mentors on this trip. For the next several hours on the bus, not to mention several hours for each subsequent day on the trip, my mentor dedicated her thoughts and attention to my job situation.

We started by role playing possible conversations with the hiring manager. It was valuable for me to practice responding to “no.” We made a list of elements of a total compensation package that I could negotiate to supplement the salary. My mentor wrote my desired total compensation at the top of a sheet of paper and we listed possible line items to negotiate in order to reach this target number. She continued to add to the list throughout the course of the week.

One takeaway my mentor made explicitly clear was that it was my duty to negotiate not only for me and my own family’s financial well-being but also for future generations of women. “If you were the hiring manager’s daughter,” she posed, “what do you think he would be telling you to do?”

I felt more confident as I negotiated my contract upon my return to campus. I learned better questions to ask and better ways to frame conversations. I am still nervous about negotiating, but I recognize that asking is one way I can crack the glass ceiling. I realize that it is my responsibility to “pay it forward” to simulate contract negotiations with my students.

Study after study continues to document that women earn less than equally qualified men and we are also less likely to negotiate on our own behalves. We need to empower women to negotiate in order to chip away at the wage gap. To do so, we need to create personal mentor networks. Each of us should have mentors and each of us should strive to be a mentor.