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When it comes to negotiating salaries, women face traps that men don’t

How the City of Boston is training female workers to succeed in a process stacked against them.

Illustration by Isabel Espanol

SUSANNE SMITH, A 28-YEAR-OLD WEB DEVELOPER at a company in Boston, generally likes her job. She gets along with her boss, enjoys her co-workers, and appreciates the convenient location. But one day after work, while having a beer with three male colleagues, she discovered that even though two of the men had the same job as her, they were making almost double her salary. That’s when her perspective on her job changed.

“It makes me really resentful of the management of my company, because I feel like they tricked me,” Smith says. “It just breeds this feeling of resentment.”

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Susanne Smith is not her real name. She asked to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want her employer to know she and her colleagues had been talking about their salaries. Although she considered discussing the disparity with her employer, she worried it would backfire and make her boss angry.

But she did ask for a raise. “I found out that they were making so much more than me that it was kind of difficult for me to catch up,” she says. “I asked for a $20,000 raise, and I actually got it. But I’m still making 20 percent less than the men.”

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She says she thinks the men were probably offered more than she was because they had one to two years’ more experience and perhaps because of an unconscious bias toward men. But, she adds, “I don’t want to throw my boss under the bus too much.” She’s mostly angry with herself for not negotiating the way her male colleagues did — she’d never learned how and had no idea she should do anything but accept the initial salary offer. “I was like the bargain-basement candidate that didn’t bother to negotiate,” she says.

An ambitious project by the City of Boston, in partnership with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), wants to help women like Smith. The city plans to spend the next five years providing salary negotiation training to 85,000 women, nearly half the females who work in Boston. It’s part of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s ambitious effort to close the gender pay gap, an approach no city has tried at this scale before.

The program started in September 2015, so its impact on earnings in Boston — where white women earn 17 percent less than men, on average, and women of color make even less — is still unknown. Some negotiation experts believe the program could have a small impact; others are less hopeful. What is known, however, is that women face additional challenges when it comes to asking for what they deserve.

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“I don’t want to blame individual women for not negotiating,” says Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and coauthor of Ask for It, a negotiation guide for women. “It’s really a societal pressure for women not to be seen as too assertive that causes women to hold back.”

Women may be holding back for a legitimate reason. There is a social cost to self-advocating — a visceral, negative reaction to women who stand up for themselves. “It can affect the likability for women,” Babcock says. “It can affect the extent to which you think that this woman is a team player.” But research shows that loss is eliminated when a woman is negotiating on behalf of others because of “stereotypes that women are supposed to take care of others.”

Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, calls it the women’s negotiation dilemma. “If you are a little more nervous about this than a guy, that’s because you’re smart,” Bowles says of women considering negotiation. “You’re reading that this is a little more risky for you to do, and so women need to be a little bit more strategic.”

SINCE THE FALL, when the city’s negotiation workshops started, more than 1,000 women have attended group sessions at libraries, schools, or other locations. About half of the participants have been women of color, according to the city. Susanne Smith attended one at the YMCA in the Back Bay after a friend e-mailed her a link. “I signed up right away,” she says.

On a Thursday evening in January, Smith and 21 other women listened as facilitator Mariko Meier talked about identifying a target salary. “Get online, do your research,” Meier advised, suggesting attendees use Salary.com to help determine what others in similar jobs in their geographic area are earning. “Make sure that your bolstering range is based in data.” (The “bolstering range” is part of the negotiation strategy. Offering a salary range can make a negotiator seem more reasonable, according to research from Columbia Business School.)

Strategy is what Boston’s negotiation workshops are all about. The AAUW curriculum — called Work Smart — is broken into four steps. Step one: Know your value. Step two: Identify a target salary and benefits package. Step three: Know your strategy. Step four: Practice, practice, practice!

Volunteer Casey Littlefield facilitates a salary negotiation exercise at a workshop offered by the city of Boston at the YWCA.

Alex Lancial for the Boston Globe

Co-facilitator Casey Littlefield leads a workshop at the YWCA in Boston.

These workshops are just two hours, so some major concepts in the field, like identifying the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA, are not mentioned. Instead, workshop participants are encouraged to base their bottom line on their personal budget. “In two hours there’s only so much technical knowledge you can impart on a participant,” says Deepti Gudipati, vice president of member leadership programs at AAUW. So the curriculum is “really trying to ground the training and the conversation to make it as relatable as possible to the audience.”

During the workshop, participants write down an accomplishment or an asset they bring to their workplace, then are asked to share it with the group. “We want you to get used to starting to advocate for yourself,” says co-facilitator Casey Littlefield. “Feel like it’s not bragging — it’s a fact,” Meier adds. Participants say they are strong networkers, detail-oriented, and focused on goals.

Participants are also asked to share what makes them anxious about negotiation. One woman says she doesn’t know how to start the conversation, another that she is afraid of making her boss uncomfortable, and a third that she fears finding out she isn’t valued as much as she thinks she should be.

At the end of the evening, Littlefield sums up the four-step approach. “What you are actually doing through all this is getting really comfortable with yourself,” Littlefield says, “and then getting comfortable with the world around you and understanding what the market is for who you are.”

After Smith leaves the workshop enthusiastic about what she’s learned, she promptly tells friends about it — “just being told this is how people talk about these things, and it’s totally normal to do that and no one will be surprised if you do this.” You learn “you’re not going to get fired or anything,” she says.

Volunteer facilitators get two hours of online training and attend at least one workshop prior to leading a workshop, and they all follow a general script. The script and accompanying slides mention stereotypes, as does the workbook every participant receives, but the social cost women face for negotiating is not covered in-depth.

Harvard’s Bowles, who attended one of the workshops held at the National Black Women’s Society in Dorchester in March, says she worried that the class didn’t do enough to address the anxiety about negotiating some of the women expressed. That anxiety is warranted because of a pervasive double standard.

“Men have a lot of freedom about the style in which they choose to negotiate,” Babcock says. “But people have a really strong preference that women not use a too direct and assertive style.”

Bowles led the research on an “I/We” negotiation strategy that was made famous in Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. As Sandberg writes, “A woman’s request will be better received if she asserts, ‘We had a great year,’ as opposed to ‘I had a great year.’ ”

“The ‘I’ part is you really want to figure out what you want, and you want to have done your research, and you want to have clarity,” Bowles says. As for the “we” part, “you want to explain to the other party why what you’re asking for is legitimate in their eyes, not yours, and then signal to them that you are taking on their perspective.”

Although the I/We strategy is good negotiating advice for everyone, it especially helps women, Bowles says. She’s sympathetic to the notion that the strategy can feel like fulfilling a stereotype rather than fighting it — and advises women who feel that way not to use it — but also argues that the approach gets results. “We found that this I/We strategy enabled women to both get what they wanted and reduce the social cost to negotiating,” she says.

Asya Troychansky, 30, laughs during a salary negotiation exercise at a workshop offered by the city of Boston at the YWCA.

Alex Lancial for the Boston Globe

Asya Troychansky and other attendees share a laugh during the salary negotiating workshop at the YWCA.

The larger question, of course, is how do we fix the system, rather than working around it? One way is by arming more women with negotiation skills, says the AAUW’s Gudipati. “One of the primary ways we are going to get rid of the social costs is by having more women negotiating. That’s a large part of the reason of why these programs exist,” she says. Babcock agrees. “The real way to fix the stereotypes around gender and pay,” she says, “is to get more women in top leadership positions and in higher-paying positions.” 

In the end, the Boston workshops might get things moving in the right direction. “Having such a public pronouncement [from the mayor] that this is something we want women to do is a good step toward changing those norms around women negotiating,” Babcock says.

Susanne Smith says things are already changing for her. She’s been at her job for a while now and is starting to think about her next negotiation opportunity. She says the workshop has affected how she thinks about the timing of that conversation and what sort of leverage she has to ask for a raise. “In a perfect world, I would just advocate for myself and say, ‘I deserve to be paid as much as the men and as much as I’m worth,’ and I’m going to ask for more money,” she says. “But I still want to be as successful as I can in the world that I live in.”

And that means playing by the old rules until she’s in a position to change them.  

Ibby Caputo is a multimedia journalist based in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com
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