The Privilege of ‘Always Negotiate’

For women and people of color, career advice meant to empower can have the opposite effect

A Black businesswoman wearing a face mask negotiates with a client. There is a plastic divider for social distancing.
A Black businesswoman wearing a face mask negotiates with a client. There is a plastic divider for social distancing.

“Always negotiate.”

“Ask for what you want.”

“Charge what you’re worth.”

If I had a dollar for every piece of career advice I’ve read that boiled down to have more confidence, I probably wouldn’t need to negotiate anything ever again.

And of course, advocating for yourself makes a difference. I asked for more money for this very story. But for women and people of color, headlines like “Why You Should Always Ask for More Money” can ring hollow. Like much of the professional world, they weren’t created with us in mind.

So much traditional career advice perpetuates the idea that success will come to those confident enough to demand it, while glossing over the reality of who feels empowered enough to do so. It assumes a level playing field that doesn’t exist, a world where boldness is a great equalizer. “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre White man” is a catchy enough meme, but it works a lot better if you can actually be a White man, too.

A 2014 study by Harvard Business Review surveyed 4,600 employees, both men and women, to find out how often each group asked for a pay increase. While women asked for a raise just as often as men, they were granted that raise 15% of the time, compared to 20% for men. More recently, a 2018 report from the compensation-software company PayScale found that while there were no racial differences in terms of who was likeliest to ask for a raise, women of color were 19% less likely to get a “yes” than white men, and men of color were 25% less likely.

“It’s demoralizing to apply these concepts and demand what you’re worth and still be told ‘no,’” says Sarah Morgan, host of the podcast Leading in Color and CEO of BuzzARooney LLC, a consultancy that helps businesses build inclusive workplace cultures.

For people who are marginalized in the workplace, Morgan notes, frequently negotiating without the desired results creates a vicious spiral. “We put the burden of negotiating on the candidate, when the person with the power in that dynamic is the organization,” she says, and even the most capable job candidate will find it hard to advocate for themselves when they do all the right things and still come up short time and time again. The same confidence that’s required to “prove” one’s worth erodes with every subsequent rejection.

“You start to doubt your skills and worth, which further contributes to the pay inequities we see. You stop asking for what you’re worth because you just want a job,” Morgan says. “You accept an offer that puts you at 68 cents on the dollar of your White peers, even though you’re worth much more. It feeds into the systems that keep us oppressed and unable to build equity and wealth.”

Recent online movements toward pay transparency, like the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, can be especially valuable for women and people of color — but even then, the burden rests on the applicant to push for fair pay, says Brittney Oliver, the founder of the networking platform Lemons 2 Lemonade. And coming into a meeting armed with data doesn’t mitigate any fundamental power imbalances, which run deeper than simply having or not having information.

“White men can negotiate because they are the dominant power structure. When two dominant power structures meet one another, they’re on the same playing field,” Morgan says. “We ask people of color to operate as if they’re just melanated White people, and they’re not. The system is not designed to pay us fairly, promote us equally, or be just.”

Oliver, who also writes about work and money as a freelance journalist, recalls that in the past, she’s written candidly on inequities within workplace culture, only for her advice to be revised to downplay the realities of her experience: “One of my first pieces that went viral was edited down to be jolly and optimistic,” she says. “It was made to sound as if it fit ‘all women.’ A few years later I talked about it again, but was able to freely say what it’s like to be a Black woman trying to get a job.”

“When you read certain career advice or listen to a panel of speakers, take it with a grain of salt, especially if it’s coming from a non-person of color,” she says.

And pushing back on that advice can be valuable, both for the privileged demographic it favors and the people it leaves out. For those in the latter group, it can be a means of validation — a reminder that what they’ve been taught to accept as truth is shaped by blind spots and biases, that no one ever knows the full agenda of the person they’re negotiating with, and when a piece of negotiation advice doesn’t work out, or when they’re too intimidated to try it, it’s not a personal failing. And for those in the former group, it can be a much-needed lesson in their own privilege to call out who benefits from the assumption that one can, and should, always ask for more.

And let’s not stop at “always negotiate.” The same is true of all professional growth advice — and while we’re at it, all personal-growth advice — that’s dispensed in broad strokes: The assumption that any wisdom can be truly universal is, in itself, a sign of privilege. A Black woman and a White man in the same job, even making the same amount, will not face the same challenges in advancing. They will not have the same levels of ease in networking, finding mentors, delegating tasks when they’re overwhelmed, ensuring a fair distribution of childcare and household labor, or taking time to recharge when burnout looms — all activities that the personal-development complex has deemed bricks in the temple of success.

“Don’t be afraid to challenge perspectives if they’re different from your experience,” Oliver says. “[Sharing your experience] can open up a thoughtful discussion.”

Morgan adds that making room for those discussions is one way for more privileged allies to support marginalized coworkers. Point out, in discussions about the importance of pay transparency, how simply having the knowledge of pay inequities isn’t a panacea for the employees being paid unfairly. Encourage those with privilege to shoulder the burden of pushing management to address disparities.

“The more we collectively speak truth, the more pressure there is for organizations to change,” she says. “We have to name names and tell the story until there’s enough incentive for them to do what they’re supposed to do. This is not only for the benefit of one individual, but everyone moving forward.”

“My hope,” she adds, “is that we move away from the idea that it’s the responsibility of [an oppressed person] to negotiate against a system designed to oppress them.” As the country reckons with its legacy of systemic racism, we should all realize how advice that’s meant to be empowering — whether we’ve given it, benefitted from it, or been failed by it — can have the opposite effect.

Bylines in The New York Times, Business Insider, and The Muse. I talk about $$ on and Twitter:

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