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Please, No More "Negotiating Tips for Women"

 Atstronaut Mae C. Jemison

Atstronaut Mae C. Jemison

If you google “negotiation tips for women” you’ll be treated a plethora of articles, all promising to teach the fairer sex how to tackle pay inequity by becoming better negotiators.

Some talk about “asking in the right way” others are by “women who’ve been there,” but all seem to focus on female deficiencies. They might as well be called Barter Like a Man or the Art of the (Male) Deal.

Whether written by a man or a woman, negotiating tips directed at women send the message that if we just had the courage to ask for more, maybe we’d get it.

Self Esteem is Not Empowerment

So many of these articles equate female empowerment with self-esteem. Yes, self-esteem is important, but empowerment is a much bigger thing. Empowerment looks at all facets of what it means to level the playing field for an oppressed group. By focusing only on self-esteem, it simultaneously lessons our struggle and blames us, the victims, for the prejudice we experience.

And when it’s men giving the negotiating advice, the problem becomes much worse. If we’re going to unpack the project of bridging the pay gap, we can break it down into two broad parts:

  1. Attending to the systemic issues that promote and/or allow pay inequity to exist
  2. Working to unpack the ways in which inequality has impacted the female psyche

The first task is one that all of society must engage in, but the second task is just for women. Only we can formulate our experiences and move past the ways in which we’ve been made to feel inferior. If men try to help with that, it just reinforces the patriarchy. In less polite terms: go fix the shoddy system you built and I’ll work on my own damn self-esteem.

Our Own Worst Enemy

Focusing on how women can and should change also sends the message that we are the sole source of the problem, completely ignoring how men are implicated. It reinforces the stereotypes and tired clichés that women are constantly at each other’s throats, that we’re our own worst enemy.

But this is merely a distraction from the truth: we’ve been pitted against one another by a patriarchal system designed to divide and conquer. That women have inherent flaws because of their femaleness is simply a tool for bolstering the masculine ideal. Masculine characteristics are strong, feminine ones, weak. That’s just the way it is. For women looking to succeed in circles they’ve previously been excluded from, the advice is to become more like a man.

But, when we examine how and why feminine characteristics are inferior to masculine ones, we see the distinction is completely arbitrary. Trying to prove that we can do everything they can do is one tactic, but it’s not the only one. It’s for this reason that I hate all the rhetoric around “killing it” and being a “bad-ass bitch”– why does being a powerful woman have to mean aggression? We’ve watched our mothers and grandmothers push boundaries and make change using a variety of tactics – some overt, some subversive. We need to celebrate these tactics, no matter how subtle they may seem.

Tips on negotiation, whether written by a man or a woman, will most certainly direct women to engage in negotiations the same way a man would. Rather than looking at the negotiation process itself – which tactics we’re persuaded by why – we accept the premise that the male way is the best way. Negotiation is a potent example because at its core it’s a process where two parties try to determine value. Rather than making ourselves over to gain a high appraisal, I think as women we need to interrogate the value systems that have denied our worth. And maybe, instead of doling out advice on how to play hardball, men need to re-examine the unconscious biases that compel them to pay women unfairly.  

We've Been Negotiating for Centuries

I learned about feminism from some pretty incredible Indigenous scholars and they introduced me to what it meant to “be a woman.” When we hear the expression “be a man,” many traits come to mind (courage, strength, bravery). But there’s no universal sense of what it means to “be a woman” (other than nice, sweet, always smiling). From Indigenous feminists like Lee Maracle, Jill Carter and Cheryl Suzack, I learned to seek out and celebrate female resilience.

We’ve been so busy counting our deficiencies that we’ve forgotten about the strength we ALREADY have. Strength that’s come from centuries of negotiating our own emancipation – a high-stakes deal where a low-ball offer can mean life or death. Along the way, we’ve cultivated fortitude, determination and humility, to say nothing of strategic foresight, and this should never be underestimated. Our strength may be silent, our tactics undetectable, but don’t be fooled – we’re moving mountains.