Asking for a raise is the type of conversation that can make even the most confident among us uncomfortable. Women, however, may have good reason to feel that way.
Discrimination persists in the workplace, and it isn't necessarily intentional or overt, experts on gender and negotiation say.
"We are asking women to juggle while they are on the tightrope," said Linda C. Babcock, founder of Carnegie Mellon University's gender equity program. "It's totally unfair because we don't require the same thing of men. But if women want to be successful in this domain, they need to pay attention to this."
Research on gender and negotiation has largely focused on requests for a raise, but the same strategies can — and probably should — be applied to a broad range of requests, including negotiating for a new position or job title.
"How women negotiate their career paths is arguably a more important determinant of lifetime earnings than negotiating a little extra money," said Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Some women may bristle at adjusting their behavior to conform to stereotypes. But negotiation experts say they think about these strategies pragmatically.
"These stereotypes will hold us back, so we might as well use them to move forward," said Joan C. Williams, a co-author of What Works for Women at Work.
Here are some strategies for approaching negotiations at work:
Asking for a raise shouldn't be rushed. To prepare, keep a record of every piece of positive feedback you receive over time, and catalog any objective metrics that help illustrate your contributions. Be careful about how you present the information — using it in a performance review might be more effective than naked self-promotion.
Women also benefit when other people highlight their accomplishments with the higher-ups, experts said. That's why it's important for women to seek not only mentors, but also what some call sponsors — professionals who actively trumpet your work.
Women tend to negotiate less for themselves than men do when there aren't clear standards on what they should be asking for, studies found.
There are several ways to gather objective numbers supporting why a particular salary is merited.
"The next time a recruiter calls you up, she is your new best friend, even if you don't want to move," said Williams. "Talk to her because she is the one who knows what you are worth on the open market."
Women need to speak with men about salaries, too. If they network only with other women, experts said, they are more likely to come up with numbers that are systematically less.
When negotiating for higher pay, research has found that it is not enough for women to act in a way that conforms to stereotypes. Acting feminine enough — that is, showing they care about maintaining good relationships as well as the communal good over themselves, for instance — helps women in the likability department.
But women also need to legitimize their requests, or find ways to make them seem more appropriate, according to a study by Bowles and Babcock. That means saying something like, "My supervisor suggested that I talk to you about raising my compensation."
Women should also frame requests from the employer's perspective. "The key thing is to turn it around and think about what is legitimate to this person and what they value," Bowles added.
Negotiate in person
Negotiation by email can backfire. "It comes across very cold, very hard and very direct, so all of the things that women tend to do in conversation that soften their approach are impossible to do in email," Babcock said.
"If you are having a conversation, you can judge more accurately about how your request is going over," she added, "and you can adjust your request as you see the reaction."
Receiving an offer for a more lucrative position may seem like a prime opportunity to negotiate. But this tactic may harm women because it can be perceived as a threat, experts said. "Every negotiation textbook says to use an outside offer, except for mine," said Babcock. "That is seen as aggressive when used by a woman."
If you do want to use this strategy, she said, you have to be careful about how you craft your language. Approach the situation as a dialogue instead of a negotiation. She said women might say something like, "Hey, there is something I really want to talk about. I want to stay. Is there a way to make this happen for me?"
Keeping all of this in mind isn't easy, which is why experts suggest role-playing the situation with a friend or partner. Practice how you might present yourself to make sure your request appears appropriate and persuasive, while also demonstrating that you are concerned about communal goals.