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The advice half of working women need to hear

Self-advocacy is difficult for many people, but for women in the workplace, it’s particularly complicated. That’s why more women need support from their peers.

The advice half of working women need to hear
[Photo: kate_sept2004/Getty Images]

In August, my company, InHerSight, asked women visiting our site whether they’d ever negotiated their salary. Almost half of the 1,041 respondents said no.

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As a company ratings platform that helps women match with companies on factors like salary satisfaction, the nearly 50-50 split should have been a surprise. I should have expected more women who visited our platform to have advocated for themselves and their careers because I know they care about pay.

Personal experience told me otherwise.

The first time I negotiated my salary, it wasn’t my idea. When I was applying for a new job and got an offer, one of my colleagues (I’d call her a friend) said to me, “That’s great, but what are you going to go back to them with?”

The thought hadn’t crossed my mind, and I was frankly scared that asking for more was going to make them take back the offer or have a negative opinion of me going into the new job. But she said to me, “They are expecting you to ask for more. If you don’t, they’ll be disappointed and wonder if they made the right choice.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but her words gave me the courage to ask. It was the easiest pay increase I’ve ever gotten, and when I look back, it’s clear now that her encouragement was one of the most pivotal moments in my career.

Self-advocacy is difficult for many people, but for women in the workplace, it’s particularly complicated. A host of cultural biases affect how women are perceived and perceive themselves.

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Assertive women leaders are deemed less likable, and actions of “aggressive” women are judged more harshly than those of like-minded men. Women are also equally more likely to undervalue themselves and to see and celebrate the value in others over themselves.

That’s a lot to unpack in one salary negotiation. And not all women are as lucky as I was—to have a guardian angel of sorts sitting on their shoulders, putting those fears into perspective. Yet that direct, woman-to-woman advocacy is exactly what I think we need more of in our workforce in order to make sure more women are paid what they’re worth.

Recent data tells us that women with a network of other professional women are more successful. I believe those professional relationships are the key to encouraging more women to take their first awkward steps in discussing pay and worth. We need more women to tell other women when, how, and why they asked for more and to encourage them to do so as well.

It’s not that women are less confident than men. I know that’s not true. But we do all harbor those reality-based worries that if we ask for what we want, we’ll lose something else. A job offer, the respect of our peers, our dream salary.

While a little more than half of women are able to set aside those fears, far too many hesitate like I did. The more women who step forward to reassure a peer, to tell her, “I negotiated my salary. I asked for a raise. You need to as well,” the more successful we’ll be at helping women climb the ladder at companies they’re excited about.

As I said, my colleague’s advice shaped my career in ways I never expected. Not only did I learn how to advocate for myself, but I also learned how to set expectations with my employer of what I hoped to achieve. From the moment I countered, I meant business.

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Ursula Mead is the CEO and co-founder of InHerSight.

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