When former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was offered her first job after law school, it didn’t even occur to her to negotiate for a higher salary, she said in a recent interview in Parade magazine. This situation gave her a chance to reflect on the hurdles female negotiators face.
“Now I realize that that’s one of the challenges that we have as women: We don’t negotiate for ourselves,” she said. “We don’t negotiate hard.” (see also, Salary Negotiation Skills Different for Men and Women?)
After the birth of her first child, Obama says she negotiated with her then-employer, the University of Chicago, to scale back to a part-time position. She now views that decision as a mistake because she ended up working just as much as she had before, but for less pay. The experience made her decide that part-time employment was a “bad deal” for women.
When it came time to negotiate for the last job she held before her husband became president, Obama said she brought her daughter Sasha, then a baby, to the interview because she didn’t have a babysitter available. She recalls telling her future boss: “This is what I have: two small kids. My husband is running for the U.S. Senate. I will not work part time. I need flexibility. I need a good salary. I need to be able to afford babysitting. . . . I can work hard on a flexible schedule.”
The reaction? “He said yes to everything.”
Obama says she now advises female negotiators and young women to “Negotiate hard and know your worth.”
Negotiation Research on Win-Win Deals for Women in Negotiation and Female Negotiators
Obama’s realization that win-win deals are possible for women job applicants may have been prompted by recent research showing that women have historically been far less likely than men to negotiate for higher salaries, promotions, and other job opportunities. As a consequence, over the course of their careers, women can leave hundreds of thousands of dollars—and in some cases even millions—on the table, write Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in their book Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want (Bantam, 2008).
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spread the message about women’s reticence to negotiate in her bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013). That reticence is often based on the intuition, confirmed by research, that women who ask for more tend to suffer a backlash: their coworkers tend to dislike them more than women who don’t ask. Men don’t suffer the same backlash effect.
One way to avoid such a backlash is to use what Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues call “relational accounts”—explanations for requests that not only sound legitimate, but that also display a concern for organizational relationships. Similarly, Sandberg advises women negotiators to “think personally, act communally” when negotiating for career advancement: “Our team needs these resources,” for example, rather than “I need these resources.”
Both women and men tend to worry that referencing their family obligations during job interviews will suggest that they won’t be fully dedicated to their work. But Obama may have been successful in her final job interview precisely because she conveyed communal concerns—for her family—rather than a more self-centered attitude.
Obama’s approach carries risk: Certainly, many employers resist offering flexible schedules and time off for childcare. But her clear communication of her and her family’s needs can serve as a model to both women and men who might be tempted to view an employer’s job off as “take it or leave it.”
What advice do you think is helpful to female negotiators? Leave a comment.
Originally published in 2009.