Negotiating while female: Before you ‘Lean In’ with demands, read this

The first rule of negotiating is that you won't get very far unless you've got something to negotiate with.
(Jon Krause / For The Times)

If you’re a female and you feel inspired to negotiate for a higher salary and more perks because your “Lean In circle” says “You go, girl!,” it helps to actually know how to negotiate.

It also helps if you realize that just because you’ve decided to negotiate, your bosses or future bosses are under no obligation to negotiate back. They can tell you to take a hike.

These may seem like home truths to anyone in the business world, or in any world where negotiating is an expected part of the scene. But not to a raft of feminist commentators who are outraged at the supposed plight of “W.,” a newly minted PhD in philosophy who decided to play tough-guy negotiator when Nazareth College, a liberal arts college near Rochester, N.Y., offered her a tenure-track teaching job, probably at the typical entry-level salary range for such positions at non-elite institutions: somewhere in the mid-to-high $50,000 range.


W.’s response to the offer was an emailed laundry list of demands that included a starting salary boost to $65,000 a year, a semester off of maternity leave, another semester off of “sabbatical” time so she could work on her scholarly research, and no more than three new class preparations per year for the first three years (even though the norm at many small liberal-arts colleges is for professors to teach eight classes a year). To top it off, W. wanted Nazareth to delay her start date to 2015 so she could complete a postdoc. “As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth,” W. wrote. “Granting some of the … provisions would make my decision easier.”

The response of Nazareth’s philosophy department was to politely tell W. to take a long walk off a short pier. “It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered,” the department wrote her. “Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.”

OMG! “It’s that last part, the refusal to negotiate before rescinding the offer of employment, that I found really flabbergasting,” wrote “Jaded, PhD,” a blogger for Philosophy Smoker, a website for philosophy grad students and young faculty.

Slate’s Katy Waldman promptly chalked up Nazareth’s response to sexism: if W. had been a man, blah, blah, blah. In a blog post titled “Negotiating While Female: Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask,” Waldman wrote:

“In a 2007 study, Linda Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles found that men and women were less likely to want to both hire and work with women who asked for raises; the go-getting femmes were perceived as demanding and uncollegial. Raise-seeking men, on the other hand, faced no backlash at all: Not only did the study participants tend to grant them lots of (hypothetical) perks, but socially their images went untarnished.”

Waldman’s Slate colleague Rebecca Schuman added:

“How dare this ‘women’ [sic] think she could attempt to secure a better life for herself and her family? In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: ‘Should I bring my own snorkel?’ ”

And here’s Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan:

“Horror stories like this are why it’s so hard for women to ask for raises. It’s why women don’t negotiate salaries for their first job while their male coworkers do, and it’s why over a career, women’s earnings suffer massively. We’re behind the 8-ball from the start, and it’s in part because we’re afraid something like this might happen to us.”

Here are a few pertinent facts that the above ladies might have considered before they sounded off with the “backlash” stuff:

Nazareth is a small, non-elite college, with about 2,100 undergrads and a tiny endowment of about $54 million. Nazareth’s philosophy department has only four full-time tenure-track professors — and two of them are women, by the way. “4/4” teaching loads — four classes per professor per semester — are standard at such colleges, and a $65,000 starting salary would have been way out of line compared to what everyone else on campus undoubtedly earns. In short, Nazareth isn’t Harvard, with billions in endowment and professors who get to spend most of their time pursuing their research projects instead of teaching students. And that’s what it is pretty clear that W. wanted to do: teach as little as she could get away with, what with this leave and that leave, a super-light course load and a delayed start to her duties. W. herself made it clear in her email that she wouldn’t be a good fit.

Furthermore, the first rule of negotiating is that you won’t get very far unless you’ve got something to negotiate with. W., as a brand-new PhD with no track record, didn’t have anything. In fact, she was lucky to get a tenure-track job offer in philosophy at all. These days only 39% of new philosophy PhDs land permanent, tenure-track positions (the rest take ill-paid temporary teaching jobs or drift into something else). Colleges and universities are currently cutting back, not augmenting their philosophy departments, because few undergrads these days want to spend their time parsing Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Dozens of highly qualified people probably applied for that slot at Nazareth. The professors undoubtedly read W.’s email, thought “spoiled and entitled — do we really want her around our department for years?,” and decided to go for the No. 2 candidate. They were well within their legal rights to do so.

The sad thing is that W. seems to have learned nothing from her experience. In a response on Philosophy Smoker, she wrote: “This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: you ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them.”



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Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.