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How to Get Paid What You’re Worth

Don't make the same mistake as writer Aleenah Ansari—negotiate your damn salary

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Words by Aleenah Ansari

When I entered my final year of college a few years ago, things were looking pretty good for me. I had just interned at one of the largest tech companies in the world and had received an offer for a full-time role upon graduation—the American Dream realized for my Pakistani immigrant parents. To say that I felt elated was an understatement. I had successfully landed a dream job as a storyteller in tech, which empowered me to buy a condo, save most of my income for retirement or invest in travel, and go into my last year of college without worrying about where I’d work after. 

Conventional wisdom would say that at the age of 22, I had hit the jackpot in terms of being “traditionally” successful—I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. What complicated this perfect image was that when I accepted the offer, I didn’t try to negotiate an even better one. As a young queer woman of color at the start of my career, I mostly felt grateful to have a job offer at all, one that promised so much financial security for my future. I also didn’t know a lot of queer women of color in tech, and it felt important for me to accept this role and advocate for better inclusion and representation. Most of all, I had little context about how good, or bad, this offer really was. I had no insight into industry standards, especially for a role as unconventional as mine.

It felt like so much was riding on this offer, and I was afraid that asking for a higher salary or signing bonus would come across as ungrateful, damage my reputation, or even cause my offer to be rescinded. I was scared to even ask my recruiter if negotiation was an option, afraid they’d admonish me for overplaying my hand. In the end I was too paralyzed to negotiate beyond the low six-figure offer, signing bonus, or stock award I was given by my company. I simply signed the offer. When I returned to college in January to wrap up my senior year, I was stunned to discover that most of my peers had or were in the process of negotiating their salaries, and were successful. I had let slip an opportunity that I was fully entitled to.

It’s been three years since I signed that offer, and a lot has changed. For one, my confidence has grown immeasurably, and I know that my skill set would be a valuable asset to any company, team, or organization that I join. I know they are lucky to have me, and I’m no longer afraid to ask for more.

I have also become a fierce advocate for negotiating your salary, signing bonus, stock, flexibility, or perk that’s the most valuable for you. And in the words of Kim Tran, a career and business negotiation coach and founder of Your Work Inspires, “you can be grateful and negotiate for more.” “As I progressed in my career, there were fewer people who looked like me as a minority woman or person of color,” Tran says. “I wanted to change that and help women and people of color negotiate for more and speak up for themselves, especially because we’re not taught in school how to attribute dollars and numbers to our unique skills and experience.”

For Tran, negotiating goes beyond asking for a higher salary—there are more ways to make work better for you than earning more money. It’s also about how to set boundaries as the lines between work and home blur, get high-visibility projects that lead to raises and promotions, and ask for flexible work conditions to suit your life.

“Negotiation isn’t just a skill for lawyers, but a skill that can be used by anyone,” Tran says. “[When you don’t negotiate,] you’re also missing out on opportunities to tell people how to treat you, and others like you. This is a skill that women, people of color, and other marginalized folks must hone out of necessity.”

What’s to lose if women of color like me don’t negotiate?

As a woman of color, I know that I am probably going to be underpaid and get lower offers than my white counterparts. Even after the Equal Pay Act was passed in the U.S. in 1963, on average Latina women make 54 cents, Native American women 57 cents, and Black women 62 cents for every white man’s dollar. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), this means that Black women will lose over $900,000 due to this wage gap over the course of a 40-year career, with Native American women and Latinas losing even more, reports NWLC.

And there are even bigger stakes for not negotiating because salary often compounds over time with raises and promotions. By not negotiating their job at the beginning of their career, research indicates that women are leaving an estimated $1 million and $1.5 million on the table in lost earnings over their lifetime.

Why was I afraid to negotiate?

I consulted Tran to learn more about how to approach negotiation. But first, I wanted to understand why I didn’t negotiate in the first place. 

Tran explains that one common cause is the scarcity mindset found commonly in marginalized folks. As a queer Pakistani woman I felt enormous pressure to accept good offers rather than seek great offers. This pressure can be even more intensified for folks of color who are the first in their family to graduate college, and those who are responsible for financially supporting family members and loved ones.

This is why I rationalized playing it safe, and convinced myself that it is not a bad place to begin my career.

But while the playing field remains far from level, folks of color need to be their own advocate first. We need to play to win.

So here are the things I will keep in mind the next time I get the opportunity to negotiate my salary:

Assess what’s most important to you

Now, base salary might not be the most important factor in a negotiation. When Tran’s child was still in preschool, she chose a job that paid $10,000 less because it was 15 minutes away, versus another role that had a significantly longer commute. To make up for this, she asked for the difference in a combination of salary and company stocks, which actually ended up totaling more than the original $10,000. 

When I think about salary negotiations for my next role, I may choose to negotiate the flexibility to work from home or relocate to another city, extra vacation days, professional development stipends, stock options, a title change, or a later start date. 

How seriously your conditions are considered and met tells you a lot about how much a company values you. That’s why it’s important for me to know when I’m willing to walk away, especially if the company or team is inflexible about things I value. Plus, I don’t think I’ll ever regret negotiating for what I want because I refuse to sell myself short—if a company refuses to align with me on this, I don’t want to work there. 

Come to the table with your research

As a woman of color, I’ve been conditioned to undervalue myself and companies regularly take advantage of this. This is why doing thorough research is imperative to knowing the market value of my role so I can advocate for what I’m worth; I can’t rely on a company or hiring manager to do that for me because they would almost certainly lowball me. Career development expert and equity advocate Minda Harts says that the main ingredients for negotiation are research, strategy, and confidence. Tran recommends looking up self-reported, anonymous data for the job title, company, title or job level, and city, on Glassdoor, Blind, and Levels.fyi, though these numbers can vary greatly due to city, education level, prior experience at the company, title, and/or discipline.

For me, one of the best forms of research comes from connecting with former managers or people in my network, particularly other women of color.

By normalizing conversations about money with fellow women of color in and out of my industry, I get a better sense of what compensation I should be asking for and this equips me to better advise others who reach out to me with the same questions.

It can feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s an essential part of closing the wage gap.

Once I come up with my market value for the position in my field or industry, I’d make a promise to myself that if a company or organization cannot meet or exceed this offer, I’ll turn it down. Harts suggests bringing up research with this phrase: “I would like to discuss my compensation to bring it in alignment with the market in [company city].”

Practice makes progress

For women of color, negotiation can be intimidating—will the hiring manager or recruiter perceive me as greedy and ungrateful because I’m asking for more? What’s the balance of being firm but also respectful? Over time, I’ve found comfort in knowing that negotiation is no different than any other skill, and becoming good at it just requires a little practice. If I can get a do-over with the job offer I didn’t negotiate, I would have made a counteroffer that sounded something like this:

Thank you for the offerI’m excited by the prospect of joining this company. Based on my past experience in product marketing, content strategy, and video production with companies ranging from Microsoft and Alaska Airlines to The Seattle Times, my ramp-up time will be significantly faster since I’ve already learned the rhythm of business and will quickly build relationships with stakeholders. Based on my past experience, and my research on the market value of this position, I’d like to ask for a base salary of X and a signing bonus of Y.

Tran also reminded me that I shouldn’t feel obligated to share my current salary, especially if I’m currently being underpaid. It’s also illegal in certain states, countries, and regions to ask for your salary. So if a hiring manager asked what I was making in my current role, I’d reply by saying:

My current salary is proprietary, but I’m happy to discuss the salary and compensation of this role. What’s the allocated budget for this?

Remember that negotiation is a part of life

Reflecting on missing an opportunity to negotiate my salary has helped me understand the proactive role I can take in shaping my career. Plus, I can apply my negotiation skills in other parts of my life, like when calling my bank to waive fees or calling my internet company to lower my annual bill.

“Regardless of the outcome, practicing your negotiation skills will give you a higher chance of doing better and getting better next time,” Tran says. “Practice makes progress.”

I’ll leave you with some final thoughts from Harts: Companies are always looking out for their bottom line, so I deserve to do the same. By asking for more, I’m valuing the skills and experiences I’ve developed up until this point and normalizing negotiation for the women of color who come after me.

Published on September 13, 2022

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Words by Aleenah Ansari

Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is equal parts storyteller, creative problem solver, and journalist at heart who's rooted in the stories of people behind products, companies, and initiatives. She’s written about travel, entrepreneurship, mental health and wellness, and representation in media for Insider, CNBC, The Seattle Times, Kulfi, and more. You can usually find her searching for murals in Seattle and beyond, reading a book by a BIPOC author, and planning her next trip to New York. Learn more at www.aleenahansari.com.

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Art by Amy Rexford

Amy Rexford is a multi-disciplinary designer and illustrator from Michigan. When she's not creating she enjoys scouring TikTok for new recipes, playing video games, and spending time with her husband and her cat Zuko. Find her work at amysunhee.com