Modesty Gets You Nowhere

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Bad day at the office

Don't settle for less.

That's the message from Kathryn Heath, who provides professional counseling to women in business.

Her insight, published in a blog for the Harvard School of Business, finds that women, when asking for a raise or promotion, are more modest in their demands than their male peers. Women ask for less – and they get it.
If the boss responds with a modest offer, they accept it without presenting a case for more. Why? They're afraid of looking "pushy."

"We find that women consistently undervalue themselves," Heath says. Men simply expect to be well-paid for their contribution, and aren't shy about demanding it.

The problem is evident throughout the process. Here are a few examples, with suggestions on changes:

Women ask for a raise or promotion, but specify only a small incremental step up. If there are two jobs open, Heath advises, go for the dream role, not the small reward. Always lobby above your pay grade.
  • Women are more likely to use wishy-washy language. Don't say "I believe I deserve a raise." Try it this way: "Based on my work managing the team during the [whatever project], I deserve a [specific] raise and I would like to be put on the fast track for a [specific] promotion."
  • Women take whatever small reward they're offered. If they ask for a raise and the boss tosses them a peanut, they'll take it and be grateful. You should be ready to present a counter-argument for more.
  • There's really no downside to asking for the pay or promotion you've earned. If you don't ask, you don't get.

Heath's findings actually represent progress, of a sort. As recently as 2003, a much-quoted study found that women were less likely than men to lobby for a raise or promotion. In fact, male graduates of an MBA program got higher starting salaries than women with a degree from the same graduate program. The men negotiated their salaries. The women didn't.

Negotiating your salary isn't easy for anybody, male or female. Here are some tips from the pros on getting what you want.
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