My graduate school grants had run out, I was writing my dissertation, up to my eyeballs in student loans and I needed a job. The fifth floor studio walk-up in Spanish Harlem cost us $175 per month (yes, this was a long time ago) and no matter that it “rained” in our only closet when the upstairs tenants let their sink overflow. We didn’t have any good clothes anyway. I had been applying for entry-level assistant professor jobs around the country but all of them required that my dissertation be completed and awarded. It was going to be tight.
Then one Sunday morning, combing through the classified ads in the New York Times I saw an ad for a Research Supervisor at Family Circle magazine. The requirements included a working knowledge of social science methods, research design and statistics. It was made for me! Turns out it WAS made for me, and after a few interviews, I was sitting across a desk from a well-dressed senior executive in an office in a building in the 50’s on Madison Avenue, New York City!
He made me an offer, saying, “The salary for this job is $23,500. I do not negotiate. That is the salary. Either you want it or you don’t. I need an answer now.” I jumped at it. The salary was thousands more than the starting salary faculty jobs were offering. I was staying in New York City. The New York Times owned Family Circle, and even with my graduate school arrogance, I could be proud of working for The New York Times Company. Everything was perfect.
On my first day of work I joined the rotation of junior people whom that particular senior executive invited to lunch, always at Top of the Sixes and always with many martinis. He welcomed me to work and laughed. “You should have negotiated,” he said. I was prepared to go to $26,000.” I was confused. “But you said you didn’t negotiate.”
“Oh, Kathi, you have so much to learn. I bluffed. And you caved. Welcome aboard.”
Fast forward 30+ years and I am getting ready to give a workshop on salary negotiation for my alumnae association in a few weeks. There has been so much written on the salary gap between men and women over the years, with myriad explanations offered. The issue is a complex, multi-dimensional one and simple gender discrimination no longer explains very much, particularly in industries where women dominate the junior ranks.
What I have noticed in many years of hiring and more than a decade as a CEO is that men nearly always ask for more salary and women rarely do. Among women there seems to be an underlying worry that they will ask too much and annoy the person making the offer. They seem to fear they will damage the relationship.
That Family Circle executive taught me a great deal besides how to handle my martinis. Think about it. My starting salary was nearly 11% below what I could have received. That 11% “handicap” could have followed me for the rest of my working life; the discrepancy would have grown. That 11% discrepancy would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of impact on my retirement funds, my bonus payouts, and my net worth. I did not allow that to happen.
When I transferred to the newspaper I was first in a position that was covered by a union contract, so salary and benefits were governed by a bargaining agreement. But I remember an anecdote that was widely whispered when the head of the Circulation Department became the president of The Times. It was rumored that, after his promotion, he said to his assistant, “Find out everything the guy before me had and make sure I get the same thing.” It was an “AHA” moment for me. No one should trust that an offer came with all the perks and benefits that were ‘deserved;’ you had the responsibility to make sure you got what was coming to you.
I never took another job without thoroughly investigating the salary and benefits that went along with it. Before the Internet made those kinds of searches easier, I sometimes hired people who were connected in the industry and asked them to make a few calls to find out what a position was paying. I also made sure I knew what I was worth, and to adjust my expectations accordingly if a job was going to be a big stretch for me.
When I got into a position to do so, I made sure that I worked toward gender pay parity. But I also continued to take responsibility for my own financial well being. Many years ago, after an acquisition brought a small company into the fold of our larger conglomerate and expanded the U.S. footprint, I went to a senior HR executive whom I had befriended and asked her outright if the (male) executives had any benefits that I hadn’t been offered. I was the only female senior executive in the U.S. at that time. She looked startled and uncomfortable but told me that the other senior executives had a deferred compensation plan. It had been a benefit of the acquired company and was retained when the new company had merged with another U.S company. At my next review – and after a year of sterling performance – I requested a deferred compensation plan in addition to my merit increase and bonus. They granted it without blinking an eye. All I had to do was ask.
It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.