Knowing Your Worth


Women and Negotiation
What can underpaid but committed faculty members do?
Laurie L Patton, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Religions


Vol. 11 No. 1
September 2008

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Knowing Your Worth
Negotiation and the academic marketplace

Recommended reading

Why don’t we have, for the person who’s been at the institution for ten years whose equipment is all ratty, a refresher package?”

“I don’t think Emory should ever concede that it will lose people to better schools. I think it has long done that, has not tried to remain competitive, and sometimes I fear that it is still just trying to be good enough.”

Women and Negotiation
What can underpaid but committed faculty members do?

Book Review and Reflections
Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels

Making Academic Writing Unpalatable
Examining violence without sensationalizing or sanitizing


I didn’t think I needed to ask; I just thought if I did my work well the system would reward me like everyone else,” one woman faculty member said to me on a rainy afternoon when I came in to tell her that she had just received a long-overdue equity raise. The situation is so commonplace that it is now the title of a book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (Princeton University Press 2003). After the large success of this first book, the authors realized that there was an entire socialization process for women that prevented them from playing like men in the workplace, and they wrote a follow-up, Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want (Bantam Dell 2008). It should be said that the gender divide is not absolute; there are many women who are excellent negotiators and many men who are not at all comfortable with the give-and-take of the negotiating table. Babcock and Laschever’s works are filled with statistics, however, and the gender differential is real.

What was the chord that these and other books struck? Many of us are now familiar with long-term workplace situations where men and women develop different professional habits. Men seem more frequently to cultivate alternative job offers and then negotiate for raises on the basis of those outside offers. In contrast, women think if they do their work and receive praise from their boss then they are likely to be fairly rewarded. Men tend to receive more raises, and the women tend to receive minimal, but not extra, increases.
Most of the time, people involved in these kinds of situations are
neither malevolent perpetrators nor innocent victims of sexism. They are simply playing two different games. Frequently, those in positions to change such patterns simply don’t see the discrepancy. This is, I think, particularly true in academia, where the nitty-gritty labor of making a fair and equitable workplace sometimes takes second place to research and teaching. Department chairs might simply go by the percentage status quo when it comes to raises, and then, when a faculty member asks for more money or garners an outside job offer, chairs will respond in a manner they see fit. But without that extra nudge, chairs may not notice what is happening.

I would like to discuss three major underlying, perhaps
unconscious, sources of the problem: 1) improper assessment of the workplace possibilities for negotiation; 2) a discomfort with the language of negotiation; and 3) academic chairs who do not feel empowered to be vigilant about discrepancies in the workplace.

Does it hurt to ask?

Many women don’t properly assess the workplace situation or answer the question, Does it really hurt to ask? In fact, many people assume that it will hurt to ask in almost any situation. They feel that asking will result in punishment. To be sure, women are in many ways legitimately responding to their environment. Many studies have shown, and it is now fairly commonplace knowledge, that women have a much thinner line to walk between appearing as collegial and appearing “bitchy.” The same behavior that is understood as “assertive” for a man is perceived as “aggressive” for a woman. So it makes sense that a woman might feel that negotiating on her own behalf appears demanding: in many cases, it would.

Frequently there is another way of thinking about the same situation. Some workplace situations are truly punitive, where someone who asks for anything is punished. If a workplace really has those characteristics, an employee should think hard about whether it is right to work there at all. But in most relatively sane workplace situations, this is not the case. Employees who come in with reasonable, well-informed concerns about their compensation are given some kind of hearing.

Begin by watching other people who ask for small things, such as a different office lighting system or a better printer, and notice the response. If one discerns that it doesn’t hurt to ask, then go ahead and ask “well.” That requires comparative research. A faculty member may not have access to salary information about colleagues, but she has access to studies and salary scales in her state and the nation. She also has access to the average salaries in her professional school or college. These are usually found in dean’s reports.

Asking well

What does it mean to ask well? Many people feel they can find no language of negotiation other than that which seems demanding and shrill. It is part of the larger dynamic, that thinner line women must walk in the workplace. But once they do work themselves up to asking, the next step becomes finding the words—words that feel right to the person asking and that will be effective enough to be heard by the person in a position to respond.

Over the years I have observed that many people feel most comfortable and are most effective in negotiation when they use inclusive, problem-solving language. Inclusive language demonstrates an understanding of the issue as a common problem that involves both the supervisor and the employee. Plopping down in a chair and, in a burst of pent up resentment, declaring, “I need a raise,” is usually not effective. (I have seen this happen more than once.)

It is far more effective to make an appointment and let the chair know the topic in advance. Then the faculty member might begin the conversation with “I’d like to talk about a better compensation package.” A common problem has been identified, inclusive language is being used, and both parties can work toward something instead of one party demanding something from another.

It sometimes helps to practice this conversation with someone else before speaking with a supervisor, and it always helps to anticipate the response and practice replies. Each time the words are spoken, one becomes more and more comfortable with the idea and language of negotiation.

The proactive chair

How might academic chairs help make negotiation easier and more productive? In my view, chairs have two choices: they may act as “mini-deans” and simply pass on decisions from the dean’s office, or become faculty advocates and negotiate with deans on behalf of their faculty. I believe that chairs should be advocates and be far more proactive on issues of gender, equity, and negotiation styles.
Some chairs, however, see themselves as distributors of limited financial goods, an onerous task that anyone would want to be relieved of. Some chairs might feel disempowered in the process of negotiating with the dean on behalf of another faculty member. In this case, the faculty member needs to ask the chair for help. Language such as, “I am wondering if you could act as my advocate in this situation,” is appropriate.

Chairs need to be far more creative in working with faculty members on options for recognition. A department might institute clear and fair policies about course reductions in the cases of extraordinary service, so that the chair can use such reductions if the salary budget is tight. Extra research funds are also resources chairs can use to help an undercompensated faculty member. TA help, research assistant help, and help with garnering outside research funds are also perfectly appropriate for a chair to offer. If chairs communicate clearly that there are finite funds and everyone knows the criteria upon which they make decisions, people are willing to be creative in negotiating better packages.

The outside offer: Beyond the culture of resentment

One of the more difficult moments for me at Emory was when I overheard a chair encourage a faculty member to go out on the job market, since the chair was unwilling to do anything on the faculty member’s behalf. I have been struggling for a long time with the problem of the outside offer. Many negotiation books recommend that women simply be as aggressive as men and garner outside offers as much as possible to play the game.

In the academic context this practice can be demoralizing and detrimental to intellectual community. At its best, it can be a wake-up call for chairs and colleagues to notice a colleague’s worth. At its worst, it is a waste of everyone’s emotional and financial resources, especially if the person really wants to stay where he or she is and is simply at a loss to find equitable compensation.
My own approach as chair was to try, as much as possible, to retain people before they felt compelled to go out on the job market. If a faculty member feels that a chair is doing everything possible to act on his or her behalf, their morale and larger perspective on work is usually very different indeed. But it is a very difficult issue, and one that does not have a single, neat solution.

Academia at its best is a place of civil, rigorous, and collegial exchange of ideas, a place where the people exchanging those ideas are protected for life. At its worst, academia is a place where lack of communication creates long-term, festering resentments acted out in a variety of unproductive ways. Helping more women become better negotiators can only help to make academia the first kind of workplace and not the second.

In January 2009 Laurie Patton will assume the role of director of the new Center for Faculty Development.