One radiant summer day, over drinks with a male colleague, I accidentally stumble on the fact that he is making a substantially higher salary than me. I don’t remember how this came up, just my surprise.
“Didn’t you ask for more money when you got your job offer?” he asks.
“No!” I say miserably, reaching for my drink.
It turns out that when not only he, but some other male colleagues, received their initial job offers from our university, they negotiated for more money and benefits, and are all making 10‑15% more than me. None is more qualified. None works harder.
While we are waiting to pay, I simmer and stew over the almost cliched inequity of it. It would be soothing to blame some sort of institutional sexism, to take refuge in that. But the fault is so clearly, evidently, unambiguously my own.
Eight years earlier, when the voice on the other end of the phone offered me a job as a professor of cultural journalism, the thought of asking for more money did not cross my mind. I had just come out of a marriage and was trying to reconcile the urgent imperatives of supporting a toddler with my dreamy freelance life. I had by this point written four books, and tons of essays and articles, and had managed to get some teaching experience, so I wasn’t exactly unqualified for the job, but I was wildly thankful for it.
If the idea of asking for more money had crossed my mind, I’m sure I would have rejected it. The question would have seemed prohibitively confrontational, ungrateful, awkward. I imagine the powerful person on the other end of the phone line being repulsed: what’s wrong with her? If I go deeper, asking for more money feels crass, shameful, greedy. Is being liked on one phone call worth thousands and thousands of dollars? I guess it was for me.
‘My boss is suddenly annoyed. I feel crushed, as if I’ve been called out for being arrogant and money-grabbing.’ Photograph: Caroll Taveras for the Guardian
I am not alone. The statistics are relentless and unambiguous: one study I saw in Harvard Business Review found that 7% of women negotiate for higher salaries when they are hired, whereas 57% of men do. When Ellen Pao took over the social news site Reddit, she banned salary negotiations entirely, on the assumption that if anyone is allowed to negotiate their salaries, men will always do better than women. Instead, she said, “We provide offers at the high end and they are non-negotiable.”
It would seem intuitive that this squeamishness is generational, that younger women more firmly ensconced in a transformed feminist world would have an easier time, yet that’s clearly not the case. Take Jennifer Lawrence’s open letter about not lobbying for more money for a film: “If I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled’. At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the internet [after Sony’s emails were leaked] and realised every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled’.”
Taking a wilfully oblivious stance towards money is a luxury, you might observe. But it’s a luxury that a cursory glance at my bank accounts would reveal that, at the time of my job offer, I didn’t in any way have. On more than one occasion in my eight years as a single mother, I would answer the door and have to talk some man out of turning off my gas or electricity because I hadn’t paid the bill. Before I got tenure from the university, I would have recurring nightmares of the children and me sleeping in a giant, furnished cardboard box on the street; it’s not that I wasn’t nervous about money, it’s that I was not equipped with a cool, straightforward, productive way to deal with that nervousness.
Is there something idiosyncratic in the way I was raised? My 80-year-old mother was an ardent and vocal feminist. One night, my grandfather gave me a Barbie Beauty Palace, and when I woke up the next morning, eager to play with it, my mother said, “It was lost.” She was always writing; articles, novels, one of which was made into a movie, but when I ask if she ever, one time in her life, asked anyone for more money for anything, she laughs. “That would seem rude or impolite. That would be like going to someone’s house and saying I realise you cooked this whole dinner for me, but I would rather have steak. It seems awkward. Would I ever have said something like that? I would have cut my tongue out.” Which explains a lot. I come from a long line of women who would rather cut out their tongue than be paid fairly for their work.
I also suspect there is something deep in childhood being communicated to most boys that is not communicated to most girls. Do boys grow up steeped in these negotiations, prepped for them? I glance over at my six-year-old on an iPad, busily slaying zombies and creepers on Minecraft, and blasting open treasure chests. Is he somehow absorbing the lesson that you should wrench the gold you need from a largely hostile and bewildering world?
If I delve into my own sunny childhood vision of working life, it would involve stumbling on something I love to do and the universe dispensing a fair amount of money for it to me in some discreet and natural way. It would not involve triumphant demands or gleeful, warrior‑like seizing or confident bargaining.
Astonishing and pathetic as it seems, it is hard for me, even now, to admit that I am working for money. It feels much more comfortable to be writing for the joy of getting words on the page, or the intellectual play of it, or to be teaching for the sheer fun of it; it does not seem OK to be writing or teaching to pay the rent or buy groceries. I think one of the latent legacies of the powerful feminism of the 1970s is the charismatic notion of women working for “fulfilment”. The idea was embedded deeply in books such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and passed through the generations: women should work so they are not bored or restless or idle. The importance of work was communicated to us, but the importance of supporting your household was not quite as clearly communicated.
What is mysterious, in my particular case, is that I am not someone who expends a huge amount of life force trying to be liked; in most spheres, I don’t care much what people think of me. I don’t mind, for instance, writing a piece in a newspaper that alienates nearly every liberal, right-thinking person in New York over their morning coffee. I am also attuned to all the ways niceness is constructed for women, the pressure to smile for photographs, the urge to apologise for breathing, the whole elaborate social construction of female likability; and yet, when it comes to asking for more money, I have a horror of being disliked, or of the particular kind of dislike that sort of assertion provokes.
About six months after my discovery about my male colleagues’ salaries, I make a skittish foray into financial self-assertion. I ask someone in a position of power for more money for a project I am doing. As soon as I bring up the subject, there is a prickliness in the air. “You shouldn’t really compare your fee to other people’s,” she says. But how else does one know what’s fair, or where one stands? How else should I be thinking of it? She doesn’t say. Unless I am imagining it, she is suddenly annoyed, exhausted. She does like me less. I leave this meeting feeling oddly crushed, as if I’ve been called out for being arrogant and money-grabbing. In the elevator, I try to talk myself into not caring, but I can’t.
I hear a similar story from a brilliant and competent friend I’ll call Frankie, who also teaches at a university. She was asking for more money to teach a popular and successful class, and suddenly felt the unspoken question emanating from the head of her department: “Why does she think she’s so entitled?”
Frankie’s experience cuts to the heart of what I am afraid of in these confrontations: it will appear that I think I am special, that I have too high an opinion of myself. This strikes me as a very female problem: spending huge amounts of energy warding off the perception that you are somehow entitled, stuck up. There is a strong instinct towards diffusing competition, deflecting envy, towards not having people resent you. All the rampant female self-deprecation, the constant apologising, is part of this same maddening, consuming phenomenon (nota bene the new app Just Not Sorry, designed to rid women’s emails of apologies and hedged authority, or Amy Schumer’s brilliant skit about women constantly apologising for nothing).
One might wonder why, in this late stage of feminist consciousness, some of us still need to appear weaker, less competent, less confident, less powerful than we are to diffuse the hostility of not only men but other women. The simple statement, “My work is worth more than you are offering”, is in this context hugely fraught. It works against some deep, secret, long-term training that we have been receiving our whole lives to conceal our confidence, to slip in under the wire, to play down our drive or success or shine, so we don’t stand out or attract jealousy or resentment. There is a brutal sotto voce question that we are always aware of: “What makes her think she is better than the rest of us?” I will do a lot to appease and quiet that voice.
As part of my new mini-campaign to do things differently, I ask male friends and colleagues how they knew to negotiate. They just knew. One grew up with diamond merchant parents, and sees bargaining and negotiating prices as a natural part of life. “I think of haggling as a theatre performance,” he says, which seems like a much more benign and upbeat way to think about it than my own fearful and self-conscious approach.
Over the next few weeks, I broach the subject with women friends I think of as fearless and formidable in their professional lives, but even they seem cautious when it comes to their own salary negotiations. A friend I’ll call Sara, a super‑successful businesswoman at the top of her prominent company, says, “I am incredibly aware that, as a woman, even at the top of the ladder, you have to be careful. Even at the highest level, women are judged differently.”
One female professor decided she would ask for more money after her job offer. She is personally and ideologically committed to this, because she is alert to the larger sociological context. But, in the moment, the request still made her incredibly rattled. Instead of writing her own letter, she went on to a website for women in academia and cut and pasted a form letter. Later, it occurred to her that she was a more stylish writer and should have written it in her own words. The university said no.
‘When my colleague told me about negotiating for his salary, it honestly felt as if a veil was lifted from my eyes: people do that?’ Photograph: Caroll Taveras for the Guardian
I understand her impulse to dig up a template; it feels as if there is no blueprint, no model, no instruction manual or primer that would offer guidance. It occurs to me that I should go back to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. When the book came out, I had a slightly snobbish attitude: I felt warmly towards it, vaguely approved of it, but I thought it applied to other people – more corporate types. Women who hadn’t grown up with a feminist mother heckling them their whole childhood. But, actually, the book speaks to exactly the psychological hesitations and inner skirmishes I am talking about. Sandberg writes, “No wonder women don’t negotiate as much as men. It’s like trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels.”
A writer I admire and look up to, who is in her early 60s, tells me she used to accept whatever fee anyone offered her to give lectures. Now, she just says no and they always offer more. For a few months, I resolve to try to do the same thing, even if people don’t like me as much as they liked me when I said yes to everything on their terms. I have to steel myself for it. It feels unnatural, aggressive. When I actually bring myself to do it, though, I experience a weird jolt of power.
I write this email to an editor: “I would love to do this, but not sure I can afford to take the time to do it properly for that amount of money… I am sorry! I would like to be more high-minded, but life intrudes. Is there any way you could do a little better on the fee?”
I am still apologising, of course, but at least I am asserting, in a semi-straightforward way, a sense of what my work is worth. A few months earlier, I would have taken the lower fee and got on with it. I am astonished when, 10 minutes later, the editor writes back suggesting a substantially higher fee. It was that easy. But you have to ask.
The basic idea that the world is built on a million tiny negotiations and transactions, that every day people are asking for more money, and some are getting it and some are not, should not be a revelation to a reasonably worldly professional person. But when my colleague told me about negotiating for his salary, it honestly felt as if a veil was lifted from my eyes: people do that?
I sometimes think about what I would do if I got a job offer now. My first instinct would still be to be accommodating, polite. I would still worry about being aggressive, or making the person offering me the job feel unhappy or awkward or put out. (One has to wonder where this responsibility to make strangers feel warm and happy comes from. Did women inherit the responsibility to erase all the awkward moments in the world?) But I would force myself to ask, I would argue myself down. I would promise myself a beautiful, impractical pair of shoes if I managed to get the words out. Fake it till you make it, as the saying goes.
As a coda, I ask my lanky, super-confident 12-year-old daughter, folded up in a kitchen chair and wolfing down chocolate cookies, whether, if someone handed her too little money for babysitting, she would ask for more. She says, “Naaaah, probably not.”
The battle, I notice, remains uphill.