I Teach Women That “Everything Is Negotiable” So They Can Live Life On Their Own Terms

By Dr. Meg Myers Morgan

When I was offered my first job out of college, at the age of 22, I accepted their offer, no questions asked. After all, this was the most amount of money my young college brain—which by that point was nearly overdosed on Ramen—had ever seen. Of course, it equaled less than a grocery store clerk makes, but what did I know. I’ll take it!
Four months later they hired in Dave at the same level as me. After he’d settled into his role, the president of the organization called me to her office. This woman was known for being frightening (which is what we call any strong woman who does her job well), and I was concerned as to why she wanted to meet privately with someone as low-ranking as I was.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I brought you in here,” she said, as my heart beat so loudly I was worried she could hear it. “Well, it’s because I wanted you to know that we hired Dave in at $5,000 a year more than we are paying you.”

I sat there, staring at her across the large slab of her mahogany desk that separated us. I said nothing. Partly because I couldn’t feel my tongue, and partly because I thought maybe this was a game and I needed to strategize my next move.

“We didn’t offer Dave more money,” she said, leaning forward on her elbows, “he asked for more.” And then she leaned back in her large leather chair and looked at me appraisingly.

I sat there a moment, blinking rapidly before saying, “Okay, well…”

“So here’s what I’m going to do,” she interrupted me with a hand up in protest. “I’m going to raise your salary to match his.”

I let out a noise akin to a giggle, but much less professional.

“Wow,” I finally spoke. “That’s very kind. Thank you so much.”

“Nope,” she said, shaking her head in disapproval. “I’m not giving you this without strings attached.” I swallowed hard.
“I’m only doing this if you promise me one thing,” she continued, looking at me with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Promise me you will never let this happen again.”

At the time, I was focused squarely on the fact that I was getting a substantial raise. But later, after I left the company and moved on in my career, I began to see how that moment in her office had profoundly influenced my development as a professional. It’s part of why I now focus my career as a professor, career coach, and author around women in the workplace. It’s part of why I’ve worked with hundreds of women on negotiating higher salaries and working with companies to ensure they are inclusive for women. Essentially, I earned three valuable takeaways from that moment in my scary boss’s office as she worked to equalize the pay gap:

Knowing that I Can
One of the major roadblocks to women negotiating for more is that they simply didn’t know they could. When my boss made me promise I would never let that happen again, I sheepishly responded: “Honestly, I didn’t know I could ask for more.” But I could, and I should, and now I do. In so many moments of my life—whether negotiating salary or self-worth—I’ve wondered if I was even allowed to negotiate. What would they think if I did? Negotiating isn’t just an exercise when money is involved; it takes place any time there is something of value at stake. Negotiations provide a chance for you to leverage your worth for more of what you value. Money, respect, sanity, anything. If you value it, you can negotiate for it.

Mentors Matter
What was so monumental about my boss offering me more money without me first asking was that she was essentially helping me get my first points on the board. After that, she showed me how to play the game. She was the epitome of what strong mentorship looks like: part helpful advice, part demanding better performance. She did what was right to correct for a gap once the gap emerged, but then insisted I understand the role I play in all of it. And to be mindful of the times I’m leaving money (or any value) on the table.

But further, women often struggle to advance at work because of the feelings of scarcity that arise in professional settings. Most boardrooms, C-suites, and leadership teams have very few women in or on them. So those women actually at the table can feel a strong need to cling tightly to their spot. What my boss did was climb up the ladder and then passed it back down. Insiders who are at a point of influence need to help others get into the influential places as well. Don’t be territorial over your spot at the table; work to squeeze others around it.

Acknowledging my Worth
Another lesson my first boss taught me—inadvertently—was that I was struggling to understand my own worth. The moment I’m given something like a job, or a promotion, or even a book deal, is the moment I begin to worry I’m not good enough for it. When I’m offered a certain position is the exact time I worry I’m not qualified enough for it. The moment the ink was dry on my book contract was the moment I started to question if I was good enough to write it. It’s as if finally getting credit makes us strip it from ourselves. I do remember sitting there with my boss as she said she was upping my pay and wondering if I was worth it. Wondering if maybe Dave was just a better employee and so giving him more made sense. But I read the situation and knew better than to protest.

I’ve since come to understand that even as a recent college grad with no work experience, I was a good hire for the company. Great even. And that watching a very powerful woman work to pay me more was a great indication of my worth. A decade later, I’ve held a few more positions, have a few more degrees, and been in a lot of leadership roles, and I still continue to question my worth. But because early on I had such a strong advocate—whose intense look is still seared in my brain—insist that I never question my worth, I continue to negotiate every chance I get.


 

 

Dr. Meg Myers Morgan is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and the director of graduate programs in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management on the OU-Tulsa campus and author of Everything is Negotiable: The 5 Tactics to Get What You Want in Life, Love & Work. Meg’s collection of essays, Harebrained: It seemed like a good idea at the time, won the gold medal for humor from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY). She gave a TED Talk, “Negotiating for Your Life”, for TEDxOU in 2016. She speaks publicly about recruiting and retaining talent; negotiating in work and life; and developing women as leaders. Meg holds a PhD and an MPA from the University of Oklahoma, and a degree in English and Creative Writing with honors from Drury University. She is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in Executive and Leadership Coaching from Columbia University. She lives in Tulsa with her husband and their two young daughters.

You can check out her website, her Facebook Page, follow her on Twitter or Instagram, and buy her book on Amazon.

 

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