Can we negotiate that?

Did you cringe when you read the title question?  Was it the word “negotiate” that caused it?

And how are your skills at asking for things you need in your work environment?

Sure, salary is important, but what about other resources?  Office or lab space, technology, support staff…the list is almost endless in academic surgery.  Ordinarily, I like to remind my mentees to be grateful for opportunities.  Negotiating is the one exception- while it’s okay to be a bit grateful, don’t let that gratitude stand in the way of getting what you both need and deserve.

So, how good are you at asking for those things?

Chances are if you’re a woman, the answer is, “Not very good,” and that’s if you ask at all.  This isn’t a problem isolated to women surgeons, but one that impacts nearly all women in business- and one that certainly impacts quite a few men.  I first became cognizant of the extent of this problem when Evelyn Murphy from The WAGE Project spoke at an Association of Women Surgeons meeting.  One of the important things that Evelyn did during that meeting- and again when we had her speak at a regional women surgeons’ conference- was make all of us boldly state, “I want my two million dollars!”

Where does that number come from?

Over a professional lifetime, what starts as a $34,000 difference (per annum) adds up to $2 million.

Wage gap by education

US Census Wage Data from The Wage Project

How does this happen?

Quite honestly, the root of the problem is that women are less likely to ask/ negotiate.  One statistic that sticks with me is that while 57% of men will negotiate salary for their first job, only 7% of women will. Nice girls don’t ask for things in the workplace, right?


Yes, sociology says that as women we are more likely to expect to simply be recognized for our good work (author’s note:  I am absolutely, positively guilty of this, and it’s a topic we’ll have more of on another day).  Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works.  If we’re going to succeed, we must negotiate.

How do I change my mindset-because I really do NOT like negotiating?

So much of this is simple semantics.  Maybe you tend to view negotiation as a zero-sum game, one in which there is a clear winner and loser.  The truth is that it’s not simply about getting to an agreement- it’s about achieving a good agreement.  Negotiation is best when it is conducted with the idea of a positive-sum game, in which all parties win.  I’ll share something from Margaret Neale later that might just help you become more comfortable negotiating.

How can I better negotiate?

Plenty of resources exist out there, and all of them point to a few common themes:

  • Bring objective data supporting your request
  • Know your “ideal” position as well as your preferred alternative (BATNA- Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement)
  • Try to understand the motivation or interests of the other party, as well as their likely positions
  • It’s NOT personal.  Not even close, and don’t make it personal (or take it personally)

Women Don’t Ask is widely recommended, and should probably be mandatory reading for every female chief resident or fellow as they navigate their first faculty position.  Getting to Yes is another classic, and one that is less gender-specific.

And if you simply want a 15-minute reset, here’s a great talk from Margaret Neale of Stanford Business School teaching you how to use negotiations in both big and small areas of life.  It seems to me that practicing in the small-stakes settings sets you up for success when the stakes are big- such as your 2 million dollars.