Do Women Self Sabotage at Work?

Forbes poses the question that I hate to hear: Do women make mistakes at work? Of course they do! Can this be discussed separately from structural and societal issues that contribute to self-sabotage? Hell no!

The Forbes piece rehashes what I've seen in a thousand other articles about women in the workplace. The article opens with this story:

When Marny Lifshen, a 40-year-old Texan and mother of two, began her career as a marketing and PR coordinator at a law firm some 20 years ago, she made a big mistake: not negotiating a fair salary. Her error set a precedent that followed her for nearly two decades.

"To some degree that has limited the amount of money I make today," Lifshen admits. "I didn't have the guts [to ask for more money]. I knew I was worth more."

As usual, the focus falls solely on the shoulders of Lifshen. No mention is made of the social penalty that women face for negotiating, or how aggressive negotiation may change how people perceive Lifshen at the office.

I've already come to terms with the fact that I will never be a "nice girl" (and maybe that wasn't in the cards for me anyway, considering the attendant stereotypes that hover around black women). However, the shifts in perception and attitude toward women who negotiate is more than just an annoyance: it's actually costing us money.

The Forbes piece then meanders into ideas on how women can better communicate:

One 32-year-old recruiter from New York, who chose not to give her name because she is starting a new job this month, was ostracized by many of her former colleagues because of her undiplomatic communication style.

"I tended to speak from the 'I' voice too often," she says, when calling out other people's perceived shortcomings, especially when upset. By voicing such statements as "I don't understand what you're driving at" rather than "Here's what can happen if we're not clear on this issue," the recruiter contends that she was seen as a complainer and not as an effective problem-solver, a quality closely associated with executive leadership.

Do they tell this to men? Because I have yet to work with a male supervisor who has issues using the "I" voice, as in "I see you fucked this up - go fix it."

They also warn women against gossiping at work. No, I'm not kidding.

But fine, whatever. This Forbes piece won't be the last article peddling a bunch of watered-down advice for women in the workplace. It's a little too easy to spend this whole post just nitpicking at something that has been taken down before.

So let's shift focus. I wrote a similar take down piece on the wage gap and watched the comment thread with interest.

And some of you really expressed reservations about what was covered in the wage gap post: namely being aggressive and sharing your salary information. We're going to parse this out a bit more and I will share some resources and techniques that may help you in the work place.

For Everyone

It's time to take stock. The most important thing in a negotiation is to be honest with yourself. How much money are you currently making and how much do you think you should be compensated? Don't just pull a number out of the air. Do some research on various sites to see what similar jobs pay. Go to Monster, indeed, Payscale, and Craigslist. Look at your job as well as jobs that are similar. What is the common pay range? Where do you fall?

Tap your networks. The best way to get current salary information is to actually speak to people doing similar jobs. Some of you were a little jumpy at violating company policy. But let me tell you something - it's company policy, not law. Think what you will about Penelope Trunk, but she is dead on when she says:

I mean, who is being protected by secret salaries? Certainly not the employee-the more transparent salaries are, the more accurately an employee can assess his or her value to a company.

You'd think that companies benefit from secret salaries and that's why they keep them secret, but really, if salaries were 100% accurate-perfectly pegged at the employee's worth to the company-then the company would have no problem revealing all salaries.

The only people who benefit from secret salaries is the human resources department. If they make an error, they can hide it. No one will know. And then they can make ten errors. Because no one knows if the secret salaries are hiding one error or one hundred.

Refusing to discuss your salary is not helping you. Start talking about it. However, with times as they are, there are more subtle ways to go about investigating.

Best Case Scenario: Find a close friend and confidant working in the same industry. If you can find this person at your own company, even better. This person needs to be similarly career minded, but not so competitive you try to take each other out. Discuss with them your salary, bosses, and negotiation tactics. The key to this relationship is two-fold: (1) Only engage in friendly competition - if you are actively competing for the same things without a solid base, you are on shaky ground. Friends can become enemies, so choose wisely. (2) Ensure that they are trustworthy first. If you wouldn't tell this person about your private life, don't talk to them about salary.

Next Best Scenario: Network aggressively and make sure you are involved in the world of your business. You need to be connected. This benefits you in multiple ways, not just on the salary quest. (For one thing, you can leverage your connects to help find a new job.) On this type of mission, you aren't looking for friends - you want friendly associates. Don't be shocked if most people are initially coy about how much they make. You need to establish that you are trustworthy and many people are uncomfortable discussing salary. But don't sweat that - you only need four or five people to confide a range for you to get a clear picture. At one industry meetup I attended, I learned that the average intro salary women were making in that realm hovered around 35K. The lowest paid main? About 40K. You want to know these things going in.

Next Scenario:
So you are too shy to network, or you still weren't able to get a clear picture. Now you have to fall back to research. Start Googling people who work in your industry and see if any of them dropped numbers. Check message boards and gossip sites and personal blogs. Also, reach out to more outgoing friends and ask them to inquire for you. You also may want to keep up your relationships in the office. An HR clerk may keep their lips zipped while they still work at your company, but if they leave and head some where else, they may be willing to spill a bit over a drink.

In addition to salary check, you need to do a self-check. Are you really a good employee, or did you blow your last three deadlines? How much does your boss ask for your opinion on situations? Do you really need more money, or do you really just want some additional time off? Once you understand what you want and need, you can set some clear boundaries for negotiation. You also need to evaluate how much you can risk. The bigger the risk you take, the higher the potential reward, but sometimes you can't afford to gamble.

If you feel like you are not in a position to walk away from a job or offer, don't pull an all or nothing negotiation where you are trying to force your boss' hand. That only works when you have the absolute upper hand, and even then it can fail. Instead, rechannel your energy. Where can you reduce costs to put yourself in a better financial situation and what can you propose that may involve hours or workspace that would make your job easier? And if you are over a barrel, take some time to puzzle through and reflect. What is the absolute worst thing that would happen if you were fired? How would you live? How would you eat? Seriously. If you were fired, you would have to start puzzling through the problems - so get a jump on it. Looking at the worst case might actually spark some ideas on pathways out of desperation and toward a better negotiation.

For Beginners

Do Women Self Sabotage at Work?

Are you new to the world of work? Are you grappling with the knowledge that you should ask for more money or to reshuffle your workload, but can't bring yourself to do it? Do you have problems applying career advice to your life? Try checking out Ronna Lichtenberg's Pitch Like a Girl.

Lichtenberg's book is excellent for people just starting to ask themselves the larger questions about their careers. Pay special attention to her section on internalizing stereotypes, where she explains:

The stereotypes our culture has about women, both positive and negative, also have a powerful effect on how we think about ourselves and others: nurture matters at least as much as nature. Because stereotypes shape expectations and set limitations, they can, if you let them, hold you back. The weight of other people's beliefs about you sometimes feels like an anchor around your leg: the weight of "their" prospective approval or disapproval can cost you time, energy, and opportunity. That is our enemy.

Lichtenberg breaks down the common issues women have with stereotypes and internal fears. Have you ever said any of these to yourself?

"I don't deserve what I want because I'm afraid it's bad to want it."
"I don't have any accomplishments."
"If I just try hard enough, someone will notice my work, right?"
"I hate talking about money."

If you've said any of these, try Lichtenberg's book.

Advanced

Do Women Self Sabotage at Work?

Do you have a good grip on what you want and just need a little more guidance on how to get it? Do you want to learn how to take big risks? Are you intrigued by the concept of failing forward? Then you should try Christine Comaford-Lynch's Rules for Renegades.

I can't describe the book any better than Publisher's Weekly:

High school dropout turned self-made multimillionaire and five-time CEO, Comaford-Lynch presents an upbeat, irreverent business book for entrepreneurs, free spirits and eponymous renegades. Focusing on passionate young people who have grit and vision but limited experience and/or resources, the author presents practical, step-by-step advice for starting a company, making it in a cutthroat environment and reaching life goals in record time, while recounting her entertaining, often hilarious life story. To some extent, all first-time CEOs are making it up as they go along, she says. Sure enough, she's found herself brazening her way through plenty of bizarre and touching situations: hiring employees before she actually has a firm; posing as a man to score a programming job in the macho world of '80s Microsoft; dating Bill Gates to learn confidence; making (and losing) millions of dollars through guts, sales know-how and force of personality. Emphasizing visualization and self-confidence, she tackles the spiritual issues of prosperity as well as the down-and-dirty details of payroll and writing a killer business plan. Entrepreneurs and leaders at all levels of their careers will find this inspiring, rags-to-riches story as pleasurable to read as it is thought provoking. (Sept.)

Comaford-Lynch's book is on my all time favorites list for many different reasons, and, though it is geared toward entrepreneurs, career-minded corporate climbers can easily tweak her recommendations and stories to fit their needs. You can even sample what she's offering. The Rules for Renegades site has a bunch of free (with registration) resources for download, including:

If you are looking to up your game or transition into entrepreneurship, Rules for Renegades is the book for you.

These are some tactics to get around the issues of discussing salary and negotiation, one of the ways to make a dent in your own personal wage gap. Now, changing society so that we are no longer faced with this problem? That's going to take a lot more effort.

Self-Sabotage At Work [Forbes]
Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling [Washington Post]
Figure Out How Much You Should Be Paid (and Three Cheers for Transparent Salaries) [Brazen Careerist]
Pitch Like a Girl
Rules for Renegades
Resources [Rules for Renegades]

Earlier: The Truth About the Wage Gap