Nice girls don’t make people uncomfortable. They don’t ask for higher salaries. They don’t express their needs and ask them to be met.

At least, that’s what women too often are conditioned to believe…but it’s time to change the narrative. Women can successfully negotiate what they want from employers as long as they’re ready to make people uncomfortable, says Alexandra Carter.

“Early on in my life, I tried to avoid that discomfort. I wanted to be the nice girl. I wanted to be collaborative. But now I know, I can be collaborative. I can be a fun hang. And I can still ask for more,” says Carter, Professor of Law and Director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School. “If there's discomfort in the room? Good. That means you're in the zone where it means something to them, and it means something to you.”

Carter is an internationally renowned negotiation trainer with the United Nations and the author of Ask for More: Ten Questions to Negotiate Anything. In a Chief-exclusive session, Carter shared her advice on how women facing career transitions can own their power and build the rich, fulfilling careers they deserve.

Tuning Out the Noise and Tuning Into Yourself

During stressful negotiations, Carter says there are two emotions that women should let go of: guilt and fear. Fear can stem from whether you’ll be making the right moves to support your family’s finances, while guilt may arise from the fact that you’re seeking a new position in the first place. When trying to overcome those emotions, she says, it’s best to shut out the noise — namely comments, such as, You left your job? Are you sure that’s a good idea?

“What I want for us is to be able to tune that out and to tune into ourselves because nobody's going to live this life for me,” she says. “You have so many qualifications and lived experiences that nobody can take from you.”

One way to tune into yourself is to ask what problems you solve in the world. Carter notes that professionals may be accustomed to defining themselves by their titles but identifying your “superpower” can help you seize your next career opportunity.

Having trouble figuring that out? Consider what people ask your advice on or what they tend to compliment you on. One woman Carter worked with realized that she was skilled at meeting and connecting people with one another…and she went on to build an entire consulting practice around that.

Being Smart About Compensation Negotiations

Many are familiar with the depressing statistic that women earn about 82% of what men earn, but there’s another important stat to note: Women’s earnings peak 11 years earlier than men’s, on average.

That’s why it’s critical, Carter says, to avoid “lock-in” provisions that can keep you stuck at a certain income level for years on end. Also beware of vague promises to raise your compensation “later” — instead, insist the company lay out the timing of raises and what key performance indicators must be met to qualify for them.

To inform your negotiations, Carter advises gathering as much information as possible about salaries, bonuses, and equity compensation as well as whether the company offers assistance with tuition and housing. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your networks for help.

“I’ve talked to so many senior women who’ve said, ‘When I called a friend on the inside, they told me the comp was much higher than what I was seeing on Glassdoor’,” Carter says.

Thanks to state laws on compensation transparency, many companies now list salary ranges. But even the top of a listed salary range may not actually be the max a company is willing to pay. During the height of the pandemic, Carter says that recruiters told her they had between 10% to 20% more to offer than what they’d posted publicly. That’s why she advises candidates — particularly those who routinely “undervalue” themselves — to ask for a minimum of 10% more than the range listed when negotiating compensation.

When you negotiate for yourself, you are teaching that company how you are going to negotiate for them. They should be pleased to be hiring somebody who knows how to stand up for her value, because she’s going to stand up for their value once they hire her.
Alexandra Carter

Negotiating Away from the Glass Cliff

As important as compensation is, there are other factors to negotiate. “Money gets us to day one, but I want to be thinking about all the things that you are going to need beyond money to thrive in that role,” she says.

Carter says she knows a woman who negotiated being offline between 3 and 5 pm each day so she could help her children with their homework. Others ask for sabbaticals or specific training.

During negotiations, one key phenomenon to be aware of is the “glass cliff” — when underrepresented people are hired to leadership positions during an economic downturn or a time when the chances of failure are high. Signs that you’re at risk of a glass cliff scenario include being the first woman or person of color hired to the position, or hearing comments from the company such as “We need a disrupter” or “We’re looking for someone to lead us out of the challenge we’ve been facing.”

When faced with the prospect of a glass cliff, it’s important to negotiate what support you’ll receive to handle the high-risk (and high-reward) situation.

“I was counseling a Black woman who was negotiating her way onto the executive committee of a healthcare tech company, and she just mentioned, ‘Hey, I see that you've never had a Black woman on the executive committee before. Can we talk about the support institutionally that I'm going to receive so that I'm seen as legitimate and there's going to be buy-in for my role?’”

You should also ask the company about their plans on creating a diverse pipeline of talent and how they generally support women and leaders of color. If your questions are ignored or met with defensiveness, that suggests that the company may be the wrong choice for you.

Yes, You Can Negotiate Severance, Too

The best time to negotiate a severance package may be when you’re joining a company. “More and more people are negotiating their severance on the way in, when they’ve got leverage,” Carter explains.

But even if the first time you’re talking severance is when the company is pushing you out the door, don’t forget that you still have cards to play — employers typically offer severance packages, after all, in exchange for you agreeing not to sue them. Negotiable severance terms and conditions may include your final date of employment, the continuation of insurance benefits, stock and stock options, prorating your bonus, and unemployment placement services. It’s often in your interest to consult a lawyer in negotiating a severance package, especially if restricted stock units, retirement benefits, or non-compete clauses are at issue.

One of Carter’s top tips? Don’t rush into signing anything. “Their insistence or internal deadline is not your emergency,” she says. She notes that for people aged 40 or older, federal law requires employers provide at least 21 days to review a severance agreement and at least 45 days in the case of group layoffs.

Standing Up for Your Value

Concerned that a prospective employer might be put off by your negotiating tactics? Carter suggests injecting a bit of humor into discussions while reinforcing your own value. You might say something like “You think I’m negotiating hard with you, just wait till you turn me loose as your Chief Sales Officer.”

“When you negotiate for yourself, you are teaching that company how you are going to negotiate for them,” Carter says. “They should be pleased to be hiring somebody who knows how to stand up for her value, because she’s going to stand up for their value once they hire her.”