Work & Purpose

9 Ways for Women to Get What They Want at Work

A negotiating whiz offers advice on how to look out for yourself

I’ve been on a soapbox talking about ways people can be more engaged in their jobs, and, in fact, love them, ever since my book, Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness was published this spring.

So a recent study by Gallup made me smile. It said: “Female managers are more engaged than their male counterparts in their jobs, and companies should hire and promote more female managers.”

But the bad news is that for many professional women, landing a management position is a slippery slope. Women who’ve been in the workplace for decades often bump up against the door to top management for a variety of reasons, which I will get to in a minute.

I’ll also offer some solutions being taught at The Carnegie Mellon Leadership and Negotiation Academy for Women in Pittsburgh, headed up by Leanne Meyer. When the program, now in its third year, kicks off in September, it will be a joint effort of The Tepper School of Business and the Heinz College of Public Policy.

Women tend to sit in a corner and wait for someone to recognize their good works and promote them.

— Negotiation expert Leeane Meyer

Leeane Meyer Portrait EmbedThe goal of the program is to develop “exceptional female talent.” Twenty-five women age 35 to 60 spend two days a month for six months at Carnegie Mellon. The time in between on-site sessions is spent working one-on-one with an executive career coach provided by the academy on the women’s specific goals.

In the past, Meyer said, most of the women would “pay it forward” by taking what they’d learned back to their workplaces and training other women there accordingly. That’s likely to happen again.

“The program focuses on accelerating women’s careers,” Meyer told me. “The numbers are appalling. Women are in middle management positions, but not making the leap into senior levels at many corporations.”

Tuition for attendees is dear at $14,900, but the women’s employers typically pick up the tab.

I’m cheered by the very existence of this program and also by the findings of that Gallup report, which said employees who work for a female manager are six percentage points more engaged, on average, than those who work for a male manager. However, only one in three working Americans currently has a female boss.

I want to believe that armed with the right negotiating skills, more women will persuade their bosses to make them upper-level managers and — even better —more employees will then find more satisfaction in their jobs.

I asked Meyer to share some of the advice and insights the women who enroll in her program receive. That turned into nine points:

1. Remember: You’re not alone. Women who’ve been in senior positions for a while often feel isolated; they’re typically the only woman in the room.

“When we bring them together, they are blown away by the support of other women,” Meyer says. “The women realize that other women are struggling with these things, and they’re not just in your mind and not because you are deficient in some way. Women are very surprised by the camaraderie that’s formed. It helps them regain a strong sense of self and the value they bring to their organizations. You can be worn down in organizations and you forget that.”

2. Don’t be shy about negotiating for your own interests.  “Women absolutely experience a backlash when they negotiate on behalf of themselves,” says Meyer. “It’s fine for women to negotiate on behalf of others. We play into the stereotype of the protective mother bear; we’re protecting our team or our subordinates. There is no penalization for a woman if she comes on assertively and negotiates for others.”

But, Meyer says, when a woman negotiates just as hard for herself, she can run into problems. To be effective negotiating for self-interest, she advises, you need to stay calm and not get aggressive.

3. Provide a legitimate explanation for your negotiation. “You can’t just ask,” says Meyer. “A woman has to justify what she is asking for, end of story. You need to say, for instance, ‘I think I need a salary raise because if you look at all of the positions in my grade, and you look at the revenues I have generated, and look at the goals I have achieved…’”

4. Expect backlash. Women negotiating for themselves frequently encounter backlash from men and women, says Meyer. “Research shows that men and women equally respond badly to women who negotiate for themselves. We always think this is men discriminating, but it is women as well. The problem is: When we don’t ask, our careers stall.”

5. You need to toot your horn to get what you want. And it’s not just about pay. “Salary is a once-a-year thing that doesn’t necessarily propel your career,” says Meyer. She says women must negotiate their own promotions.”

6. Raise your hand more. “Look for very visible stretch assignments,” says Meyer. “Men ask for those assignments four times more than we do.” And, she adds, women need to keep showing they are achievement oriented. “Waiting puts you out of the game,” notes Meyer.

7. Look for a sponsor, not a mentor. That’s a key principle of Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. “Mentoring relationships have a very patriarchal feeling that’s not empowering,” says Meyer. “Ask to work with people who you know who could see your work and choose to sponsor you. They’re developing you because they think you are great and can pull you up. But they need exposure to you. You need to ask to work with those high-fliers or those specific people who could be your sponsor.”

8. Ask for training that can propel you. “Senior women don’t feel worthy of asking for personal development courses that can help their careers,” says Meyer. But, she notes, their managers are often impressed that the women want to keep learning and learn to work differently.

9. Make asking a habit. At the Academy, students are given an ask task for their work and personal lives every month as an exercise for the “Negotiating Gym.” Says Meyer: “We give them a negotiation instruction, starting easy and working up to powerful. It’s the same idea as a gym, you go in and work your little muscles and get bigger each time. First, you ask for silly things. Then ask for something that you want that is not that important. If you don’t get it, it’s fine. Next, think of something you want, but ask for double. So if you want a one-day leave you had not been granted, ask for two.”

The women learn to have fun with negotiation and are surprised that when they ask, although they might not get what they are looking for, they’ll often get something else, says Meyer.

The goal is to train women to ask for more and to make asking a habit. “We find women tend to under-ask by 30 percent,” she says. “You want learning to ask to be a natural instead of thinking everything is a horrible negotiation that you want to avoid.”

Kerry Hannon
By Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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