Recently I was sitting in an office at a co-working space when I inadvertently overheard a phone conversation taking place in the office next to me. There were two men in the room and one woman on speakerphone, and they were discussing the terms of bringing her on as a contractor for a project. She said, “I’d love to work with you, and I’d be happy to give you a 15% discount on my services.” The men were elated. “Fifty percent?!” I could hear them laughing and clapping each other on the back. Then it got awkward as she backtracked and explained they had misheard her.
What was worse: the fact that she discounted herself with absolutely no prompting, or that the men actually thought she’d give them half off? Perhaps I was missing some context in this particular situation, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen a woman lower her price before the negotiation has even begun.
So why did the woman on the phone do it? For one thing, women are more likely to compromise than men, and women often intuitively know that negotiating can sometimes have negative consequences. In particular, a woman who negotiates for herself can be less liked and her colleagues may be less interested in working with her. You might remember hearing back in 2014 about a woman who applied for a tenure-track faculty job at Nazareth College. When she tried to negotiate, her offer was rescinded. That’s the worst case scenario that makes women fear negotiating and decide it’s not worth the risk.
In situations where an employer won’t negotiate, my view is that it’s probably not a great place to work anyway if they’re uncompromising right off the bat. What happens later when something unexpected comes up and you need flexibility? Of course, rejecting an offer is a luxury most of us can’t afford.
Women are forced to navigate a frustratingly fine line between advocating for themselves and not alienating people by doing so. But women must negotiate because we are still stuck in a wage gap that costs college educated working women $1.2 million over the course of their lifetime. Navigating gender bias is something I work with my clients on day in and day out, but I hate doing it. It’s tempting to throw my hands up and say, “who cares if someone doesn’t like me?” Unfortunately it’s just not that cut and dry: I do care. Research shows that women are more likely than men to desire close relationships with others. I’m personally no exception, and most women I know and have worked with aren’t, either.
I like actionable negotiation advice best, and have written and will continue to write about strategies that women can use to set themselves up for success. But the best big picture guidance I can give applies to both women and men: reach back as you move forward and make changes where you have the influence to do so. Equal pay for everyone isn’t going to come easily. So seek to understand the challenges women and people of color face. Identify and root out unconscious bias, starting with yourself. And if and when you’re a leader in your organization, bring a creative problem solving mindset to the negotiating table and encourage others to do the same.
This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.