The pitfalls of undervaluing yourself

April 18, 2013

I was in an email exchange this week with a friend who has been interviewing for a new job. She's been quite busy meeting potential employers, and mentioned that in one recent first interview, she was not expecting the topic of money to come up. She thought it was too early. It wasn't. The interviewer suddently piped up with, "How much are you looking to make?" Here's what happened next.

"Caught off guard, I totally lowballed my answer. Right now I am kicking myself.  It's like someone totally takes over. I guess there's still time to negotiate once I actually get an offer. But still, why oh why do I keep doing that?"

I sympathize. Actually, I empathize. It's exactly the kind of thing I'd do. As I've said in my recent Metro column and on the show, women undervalue ourselves all the time. It's so ingrained in many of us that we're not worth much, and we have such trouble saying we deserve things, that unless we have strenuously prepared to talk about money and rehearsed what we're going to say, we revert to type. Meaning we go right back to that inner voice, passed down through milennia, that says, "Who the hell do you think you are asking for that kind of money? You know you're not worth that much." Our comfort level with our own worth is a comfort level with low worth.

Whether our pathetic sense of our worth comes down to centuries of doing unpaid work (household, maternal) and being expected to be happy with that, I don't know, but I'd say it's a decent possibility. Women are still largely expected to be givers, not takers. It offends both sexes' expectations when we put up a good fight for money, and sometimes the discussion or its aftermath doesn't go well (which leads some, such as writer and women's advocate Joan Williams, to say women are wise not to bother with this dance at all, a view I vehemently disagree with). The back story to the tale I told in my Metro column is that if my colleague had not told me to ask for that 25 percent raise, I would never have dared done so. I probably would have asked for 10 percent, but never 25. I did it because I thought, "If Kelly says I should ask for that, and she's been here 10 years, I bet she knows what she's talking about." Obviously I'm glad I followed her advice, because I got the raise.

Women's tendency to under-negotiate, or not do so at all, is one of the reasons for the pay gap. While this isn't a foolproof answer, I believe being aware of how much we undervalue ourselves can help to keep us on our mental toes when it comes to the kinds of unexpected discussion my friend found herself having. Money is such an uncomfortable topic for a lot of women that we avoid thinking about it whenever possible. I'm up against this myself as I attempt to work out a budget for the show and how much I, Ashley, am worth. Naturally my inner voice says, "You? Worth something? Are you mad?!" But I will press on, trying to train myself out of my appalling mental habits - exacerbated, I'm sure, by my English upbringing. 

The more we know about the subtle psychological hangups we have, and the more we learn about the art of negotiating - and it really is an art - the better. I highly recommend the book Ask For It, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. This is a great piece by Rachel Simmons and Jessica Bacal on why it's so important for young women to learn how to negotiate - and not just for money. 

And if you're interested in some radio, this is the first public radio story I did on women and negotatingThe second is more of a 'how to' and follows up with one of the characters from the first piece. 

Good luck.