Illustrations by Luisa Jung
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Two years ago, when Arit Amana received a job offer to join a multinational company as a software engineer, she was ecstatic. At 38, it was her first break into tech, and the $87,000 salary the company was offering almost doubled what she earned at her last full-time job as an analyst in public health.
“It was validation that I had the skills that were in demand,” said Amana, a mother of two based in Washington, D.C. The thought never crossed her mind to negotiate her pay. “I was just so grateful to just even have the developer job,” she said.
Pretty quickly into her new role, she struck up a friendship with one of only two other women developers in their department. They bonded over their shared boot-camp-educated backgrounds and began meeting up regularly. “Just through our coffees or lunches, I really began to get a sense that, wow, this is a whole lot more money on the table than I thought,” Amana said.
Those conversations motivated Amana to broach the topic with her own teammates: “I would say, ‘Could you share with me a ballpark of what you made at your last role or your first role?’ I didn’t ask them about their current salary, but I did ask about previous salaries.”
What she learned was that many of them were making 30 to 40 percent more than her in their starting roles — when she had just as much experience as they did.
Amana’s revelations join a chorus of voices advocating for pay transparency, a growing movement that has sparked viral tweets, anonymous Google Doc spreadsheets and state pushes to make salary disclosures the law for companies. Particularly during the pandemic, in which women were hit hardest by job losses, experts say it’s time to have more conversations about money, not only in the workplace, but with friends and family, too.
“Money has never been an easy subject to talk about,” said Linda Davis Taylor, author of “The Business of Family” and former CEO of Clifford Swan Investment Counsel. “Pre-covid, studies reported that over 60 percent of women said they would rather talk about anything else, even their own death, than delve into money matters with friends and associates.”
The topic isn’t so taboo for Amana anymore. After landing her current job with a tech start-up, she not only countered the offer, she also reached out to her friends for advice. “I shared the offer with them and I was transparent with the numbers,” she said, adding that those conversations come easy for them because of the level of trust and loyalty in their friendships. “Many of them were like, ‘We think you should ask for more.’”
The negotiation process “was a two-round email volley,” said Amana, who now mentors new and aspiring women developers and writes a newsletter about her experiences working in tech. “And they upped the offer as a result.”
To help other women learn how to start these conversations, we asked Taylor and Tori Dunlap, a financial educator and founder of HerFirst$100K, for their tips.
Start with yourself, and make it a two-way conversation. Pose a topic/question that’s been on your mind, and then share your own experiences first. For example, “It’s always been hard for me to talk about money, but I’m preparing for job interviews, and want to be ready to talk about the pay. There’s no information provided about the salary, so I was going to ask about it at the end of the interview. What do you think about that approach?”
Despite having a marketing degree and being an internationally recognized business owner, I still regularly reach out to friends of mine and say “X brand wants to work with me, I’m thinking of charging this — is that enough?” Start with finding friends in your industry who will tell it to you straight. One day, you may get to be this person for someone else.
Talking about pay with work colleagues can be particularly sensitive. But if you frame the conversation as a win-win where everyone learns together, it can take the pressure off colleagues and managers alike. For example, ask a few colleagues if they would like to join you in requesting a departmentwide open conversation with managers about money. You could suggest topics in advance such as, “How has covid affected the company’s finances? How does the company go about setting pay for different jobs? What’s the most productive way to ask our manager about a pay increase?” By creating a spirit of collaboration and learning, it’s less competitive and threatening.
It can be as simple as, “Hey, I have a performance review/meeting with HR coming up and I’m planning to ask for a raise/bonus/etc. — would you be comfortable sharing your salary with me to help me better prepare my offer?” A great way to kick off this conversation is to let them know what you’re currently making as well. If you’re feeling too timid to ask them outright, simply ask, “Is my expectation too low or too high?”
It’s always appropriate to talk about pay in interviews — it’s a question of how and when to do it. If salary information isn’t included in the job posting, ask about it, but don’t start the interview there.
If the interviewer hasn’t raised the topic during the conversation, and the interview is winding down, you can say something like, “This opportunity sounds really interesting to me, and I hope I’m a competitive candidate. Can you share with me the salary range that you’ve set for the position?”
A pitfall to be aware of is if an interviewer asks you about your pay expectations without sharing the salary range for the position. If that happens, a possible response is, “Of course my objective is to be valued for my contributions according to the responsibilities of the position. Can you share with me what salary range you have budgeted for the job?”
If the salary range quoted is below what you have been making or what you need to be financially stable, be prepared to ask for a specific salary that you have in mind. Of course, in doing this, you also need to be prepared to walk away if the interviewer says no, or if they stop considering you because they cannot meet your expectations. Do your research ahead of time about the field, the company and the role, and make sure you’re not asking for too little or too much.
In many states, it’s illegal for companies to ask about previous compensation. If this is the case for you, politely decline if they ask you to disclose what you were making previously. If you’re in an interview process and they ask what your preferred compensation would be, especially early on in the process, I recommend using a script like, “It’s hard to understand the full scope of the role at this point in the process, but I would love to know your budget!”
The goal is to respectfully, but consistently, put the ball in their court. I can’t tell you how many times a client would, when put on the spot, blurt out a number that was $10,000 less than what they should have for a role because they felt the pressure to give up a number too soon. If you have to give a number, I’d recommend choosing a range, but only after doing research both online and with others in a similar industry or job.
Managers expect employees to talk with them about their compensation, whether it is salary, bonus or benefits that the company provides. This is part of their role as a manager. Don’t spring it on them without some advance planning, though. Ideally, your company has an annual review process in which you and your manager have a dialogue about your performance, the company’s expectations for the next period, and asks for your own feedback. At this time, you could say something like, “I appreciate this opportunity to discuss my performance, and I’m glad to hear I’m meeting expectations and that the company values my work. Can you be my advocate for a salary increase at this time?”
If the conversation has not been as positive, you could say something like, “I’m very appreciative of hearing how I can improve my work. Can we schedule another conversation in three or six months to review my performance again? My goal is to advance, including financially.”
The best thing you can do is come prepared. Set a meeting time and let them know exactly what you’d like to talk about — your performance and compensation. Come with a number in mind (now that you’ve talked to your colleagues and done your research), and bring everything you’ve got to the table. Positive performance reviews, projects you’ve worked on to great success, and the data you’ve collected. You should feel ready to negotiate but determined to stand firm in your ask.