In our seminars with college and teen-aged young women, we talk about money management, including income, budgeting, saving, credit, debt, and investing. We delve into the rich and multi-faceted area of entrepreneurship, and the idea of entrepreneurial thinking. The classes are active and engaging, and the students continue to surprise me with their insight, their precocious understanding of financial topics and conceptual building blocks, and their interest in all areas financial, contrary to the stereotypes of women and finance. One of the most important areas we focus on in terms of financial nutrition, or taking care of oneself financially, is income levels and salary negotiations.
In one recent class, we had a stunning, eye-opening conversation with the young women about worth. Specifically, an initial conversation about the students’ ideas of their financial worth in the workplace, as they contemplated the topic of salary negotiations, revealed some interesting insights into these young women’s ways of thinking about money. We explained to the students that young men graduating from college are still negotiating higher salaries than young women. When we discussed the prospect of asking for a higher salary than what was initially offered in a new job, concerns were voiced about asking for more. One young woman said she felt that she was the one who should sacrifice, and not ask for more money as it could hurt the company or other people working there. Another young woman said she would never ask for a raise; she would expect her hard work to speak for itself. The conversation continued to follow this theme of not thinking to or being willing to negotiate a higher salary.
We followed the discussion with an exercise where the students researched the salary level for a job they might like to do one day, and then paired up in an activity to negotiate starting salaries. The students were instructed to say “No” to the first offer they were given by their partner, and then present reasons, based on their experience and research, why they should be paid more. We have done this exercise in more than one seminar of young women, and always get the response that it was difficult and strange for most of the young women to ask for more money, even if they had the experience and research to back up their request. But, we also get the reaction that asking for what they are worth — and frequently receiving a higher salary in the activity — is also liberating and, yes, empowering.
Salary negotiations are a brilliant example of the economic concept of information asymmetry — an obvious imbalance of power — as they are seldom transparent. For example, most negotiators do not disclose what other members of the company are being paid, how much they really have to spend on the position, and the factors in the calculation of employee value. We teach our students that research is a critical piece, and that knowing what a job should pay is necessary before entering the negotiation. But what is truly relevant about these early conversations about worth is the young women’s orientation toward money, about their perceptions of their financial value in the workplace, and about their willingness to have a voice when it comes to expressing and owning their worth. This information and understanding is key to providing financial education to young women that ends the gender wage gap, and empowers women to earn the income they deserve, and need, to take care of themselves.