As a child, I once asked my mother how much our house was worth. "Same as everything else" she said, "whatever somebody is willing to pay for it." Twenty-five years later, as I negotiated the terms of my first academic job, I found myself thinking a lot about her answer.
For the past year I've been a postdoc in the social sciences at a major research university in New England. I hadn't planned to leave yet, but when I was invited to apply for a job at a public research university out West, I figured, why not?
Six months later, the university wanted to hire me, and I wanted to go.
The job itself is appealing: It's on the tenure track, with great colleagues and a manageable teaching load. Equally important, the area where the university is located has what my family needs -- job opportunities for my husband and good public schools for my kids ages 5 and 0 (I'm nine months pregnant at this writing.)
So the job was worth a lot to me. But what was I worth to the university? Before making an official offer, the department asked me to come up with a detailed request for lab space, start-up money, and salary. It's that last one that proved to be the problem.
Like many public institutions, the university has a standard salary scale which, after years of budget cuts, is now below market rates. About half of the university's faculty members are paid "nonstandard" salaries, meaning higher than normal. That creates understandable resentment on the part of the faculty members who, by earning a standard salary, are underpaid in comparison.
The easiest way to get a nonstandard salary is to present a competing offer from another department, but I had no competing offer because I wasn't on the job market -- they recruited me. So what salary was I supposed to ask for? And what salary should I accept?
The university offered me the standard, which was fair in the sense that I'd be paid the same as my colleagues -- at least, those who came in without competing offers. But the other postdocs in my lab this year were getting much higher offers from other universities for doing the same kind of research that I do.
So I submitted a salary request asking for the mean of my colleagues' offers, which was about $15,000 higher than the university's standard salary for a new assistant professor. Both figures could be considered fair: One would maintain equity in the department; the other would reflect the market rate. What universities should do, according to my postdoc supervisor, is hire new people at market rates and then grant equity raises across the board, so that everyone's pay remains competitive. But the university I was dealing with doesn't do that, for whatever reason.
And then there were the gender issues.
Gender issue No. 1: Nice girls don't demand money. In their 2003 book, Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever report that women are less likely than men to negotiate the terms of their first job, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for too little. Because future raises are typically a percentage of current pay, those tendencies result in a gender gap that increases over the course of people's careers.
My own inquiries confirmed that. Over lunch, one of the top women in my field told me about her experience switching jobs just a couple of years ago, when she was already famous and hotly recruited. She described her first meeting with her new department chairman this way:
The chair said, 'We're giving you this much in start-up."
She said, "Great!"
He said, "And we'll give you a postdoctoral student."
She said, "Great!"
He said, "And we'll pay your summer salary for two years."
She said, "Great!"
He said, "You're not very good at this, are you?"
Younger women seem equally reluctant to make demands. When I asked a star postdoc in my field about the salaries of the three job offers she already had in hand, she admitted sheepishly that she hadn't asked. "I keep meaning to bring it up" she said, "but I'm too embarrassed."
The comments of the other female postdocs that I talked to were mostly along the lines of "Negotiate salary? Can you do that?"
I felt guilty for negotiating at all after I talked to my friend Lynn, a postdoc who got two offers this year after seven years of applying for tenure-track jobs and getting nothing. "What do you mean, you haven't taken their offer yet? You are not seriously considering turning it down?" she said incredulously. "I would have taken a job for $25,000. I would have taken a job for anything. I have friends who took jobs for $30,000, $35,000. . . . I can't believe you would consider turning this job down."
I did have an urge to just accept the university's standard salary. I kept thinking how pleased the dean and the department head would be. They would see me as a team player instead of a selfish pain in the neck. And my coworkers wouldn't resent me, either, because I'd be just as underpaid as any of them.
In that fantasy, everyone appreciates my sacrifice and adores me for it. No one sees my low salary as a reason to devalue my work.
What made me determined to keep going with the negotiation, and turn down the job if necessary, were the stories of my friends now in faculty jobs whose terms they had not negotiated.
"I got completely screwed" said Pamela, an assistant professor at a major research university in the Midwest. "I was so happy to get the job, I just took whatever they offered. Which was, of course, the bare minimum they could offer. When I got here, I found that I had less lab space, less start-up funding, and a lower salary than anyone else in the department. And then last year, when a senior faculty member suggested that the department try to find more lab space for me, the chair said, 'If she didn't negotiate for a good package when she came in, it's not my problem now.'" So many of my friends have taken the nice-girl route and now feel bitter. It turns out that there is no prize for self-sacrifice. Their bosses don't like them more, and coworkers and outsiders seem to view their low salaries as a sign that their research is worth less than other people's, rather than as evidence of their superior moral rectitude.
As much as I wanted the job I'd been offered, I didn't want to end up unhappy in it. Plus, I felt obliged not to let the team down -- the team being women in general -- by negotiating like a girl and accepting a low-ball offer. A friend of mine who was also negotiating her first job confessed that she only managed to stay tough by reminding herself that she was doing so to take care of her family, a womanly rationale indeed.
Which brings me to gender issue No. 2: It's hard to solicit outside offers while pregnant and/or breastfeeding. My former graduate adviser said, "Well, worst-case scenario, you can just take the job, defer it for a year, get another offer in the meantime, and then demand a higher salary from the university."
If I weren't about to have a baby, that would have seemed like a good back-up plan.
As my friend Elaine pointed out, the university's policy about outside offers "inevitably results in gender inequity. It's obviously easier for a man to go out and get other offers than for a woman to do so while she is pregnant or nursing a little baby. So on average, the policy is going to hurt women more than it hurts men."
I couldn't imagine trying to solicit outside offers at that point. It would have required networking, going to conferences, setting up invited talks. It was all I could do to waddle around my lab.
So how did the story end?
After three months of arguing back and forth, the department offered me a compromise salary: less than what my fellow postdocs were getting, but more than the university's standard starting salary. It was actually just below what I had decided was my lower limit, but when they offered it, I was so relieved (it's almost good enough!) that I said yes anyway.
I don't think I'll regret it. At least I hope I won't. What I keep telling myself is that, unlike most of my friends, at least I negotiated. That's something I certainly won't regret.