The first time I interviewed for a real job the company did that baffling thing companies love to do where they ask how much of a salary you want to make. Call me naive, call me unprepared, but up until that moment I had thought this question through a grand total of 0 times, too focused on looping through my greatest strengths and not-weak weaknesses, and this was my supreme downfall. A million and one conflicting thoughts stormed through my brain at that very moment. Of course, I want to make as much money as I can, but I’m practically begging for this job. What gives me the right to set my price? What if I give a completely ridiculous number that makes me look like such a clueless, arrogant fool that they laugh me out of the interview and back into summer unemployment?
The other issue was, of course, I couldn’t just sit there and think about it in dumb silence. Interviews are a performance; responses must be thoughtful but prompt, and this is why preparation is so key.
Preparing for this nasty trap of a question is a matter of research, yes, but also a matter of knowing your worth and pumping your ego.
There are so many ingredients swirled into the wage gap pie (it is an inter-sectional issue, all facets of which I cannot tackle here), but one key component is a socially fostered lack of self confidence and self advocacy. Salaries are not set in stone. You must ask for a higher number than they are going to initially offer, but doing this can be prohibitively anxiety-inducing, especially for young women approaching the world with ingrained deference and self-doubt. Attitudes and societal norms foster divergent levels of self-confidence between men and women that contribute to the wage gap between us.
Here is the thing I’ve learned these past few years: you have to be your own biggest advocate. Companies are going to low-ball you because their whole goal is to minimize their costs. Your salary is a cost, but remember that you are an asset. Make them pay for you. At the very least, don’t put yourself on the bargain shelf for them. If they really can’t go that high, put the onus of bargaining you down on them. Don’t do them any favors; they already have the power, so they don’t need them.
Even if you need a job, even if your options are limited, do not give yourself away! If the job is within your reach, ask for that higher salary. They almost always have room to give.
Back in that first job interview, saddled with a time constraint and the false impression that the job they were offering to me was a favor for which I owed them gratitude, rather than a fair exchange of services for salary, I blurted out $1000.
That’s not a salary. This was a 40-hours-per-week job spanning 3 months and I asked for $1000 total. Honestly, they really should have laughed me out of the office.
They offered me the job and an okay hourly wage and I took it, dumb and happy. Halfway through the summer I (predictably) gleaned that my male counterpart, a nice guy with a knack for finding any manner of preoccupation to get out of doing work, most often shooting the shit with the other guys around the office about golf, was making $1.25 an hour more than me. In hourly wage terms, that is a hefty price to pay for undervaluing yourself. I couldn’t be mad, though. He had asked for more and they could afford it so he got it. That’s the way the world works.
I didn’t like that job very much. I spent my summer in a windowless, overly air-conditioned office with middle-aged downers plugging away at numbers. But I did a good job. My supervisor lobbied hard for my return, but I had gained a kind of confidence in my work ethic that led me to believe that I might be able to find a job I could actually like, rather than grabbing at any old crappy job I could get. This was an improvement in and of itself.
I did manage to find a job I knew I would love for the next summer, and when they offered me a low salary I felt my stomach flip a little, because now deep down I knew the emotional consequences of being underpaid, but I was still too afraid to say anything. Still too uselessly grateful.
In life, gratitude is a vital guiding principle. Practice gratitude for your faculties that allow you to get the job, practice gratitude for your kind coworkers who support you, practice gratitude for life and food and opportunity. But you do not have to be grateful to a company for giving you a “chance.” This is a myth and it is a myth that reduces you. You are doing the company a service. They are paying you. Gratitude has no place in this equation.
I loved that job I did last summer and so I decided I wanted to return next year, but this time around I approached the reapplication process from a place of greater entitlement (read that word and weep, I don’t care). I was damn good at that job and a valuable asset to them and as a result of that they offered me a significant promotion with a slightly more generous salary, but I still knew they could go higher and honestly felt that they should. I now have a good personal relationship with my superiors there and I know they value me as a person, but that does not change the fact that they were undervaluing me as a financial asset. Feeling undervalued breeds resentment which eats into work enthusiasm and quality and nobody wants that. I knew this meant I needed to have an uncomfortable conversation about money with people I liked.
I called my Dad and asked for negotiation advice and a bit of hand-holding before I bit the bullet. No shame there. He told me to arm myself with a list of concrete value-add contributions I had made during my time working there last summer. I thanked him and as we hung up he reminded me to always remember that I had other options.
There’s that male swagger – match me or I’m gone.
The conversation was business-like but pleasant. I explained that “The summer following my junior year of university is extremely valuable time to me professionally, so I need to make sure that this time is equally valued by the organization I dedicate myself to.” I know, I know, I ended a sentence with a preposition, but it got my point across. They agreed to my request, and I enthusiastically agreed to come back. I now can’t wait to get started.
Can you imagine if I hadn’t decided to go for it? If I had decided I was just grateful to be taken back and immediately agreed to return? I would have been throwing money away, money that ultimately makes a much bigger difference to me than it does to them. And not only that, but I have empowered myself. I cannot be walked over. I value myself and I demand that others value me.
And you know what? I am worth it.
Do me a favor and tell yourself that every god damn day. Say it often enough and you will start to believe it. Start to believe it, and the world will too.
We still don’t value women the way we ought to. We are still more critical of women than is fair.
Demand better. Demand more. You are worth it.