Because I’ve internalized a lot of this backlash, it has taken me almost 30 years to rediscover the power of being able to ask for what I want—especially when it comes to money. That’s hard for me to admit, because I’m a feminist who sees myself as strong, capable, and independent. Still, I’m not going to lie—there is a side of me that is sometimes worried about being stereotyped, judged, or alienated for coming on too strong.
Sadly, women are still encouraged to adapt to the needs and desires of others, to put our own expectations and dreams aside in order to be “nice,” or to not be seen as “aggressive.” It’s no surprise that young female college graduates get paid less than their male counterparts—and the situation not getting better. It’s getting worse. It has to stop. Life is way too short to be suffocating our truest selves and stifling our power to make other people feel more comfortable.
When, as an official adult, I began reflecting on my meager finances, some of the major decisions I’ve made in the last decade—like keeping my mouth shut when I needed raises, and maxing out my credit cards to make ends meet instead of finding creative ways to make more money—I realized I had to change the way I operated. Being more assertive about what I needed and wanted was critical to my survival. I decided to appoint myself as CEO and HBIC of my own life, to take back some of the power that I clearly recognized as my birthright as a child.
Step one was to observe my habits. I noticed that my hesitation about asserting my value in financial negotiations mirrored my behavior with roommate conflicts, relationship issues, and friendships. I recognized that I have an aversion to conflict, and a fear of being ostracized and excluded. And I knew that these feelings would persist until I took definite action.
I identified the key moments where I lost some of my childhood negotiating chutzpah. I graduated from college during a depressed economy following September 11, 2001, so I felt lucky to find a job right away, while it took many of my friends three to six months to secure any kind of employment.
My first job didn’t work out, so I left for a better one, one that ignited my passion and offered amazing benefits, a decent salary, and many other perks. I remained at that organization for five years. During my time there, I appreciated the raises and promotions I received and never felt like I needed to advocate for more, because I was always paid fairly. Stupidly, I figured this was how it worked everywhere.
When I reluctantly left that job to relocate for graduate school and a new public-relations job, I assumed that any new gig would also pay me what I was worth. I ended up making the mistake of taking a major pay cut to work in a more expensive city.
I tried to ask for more money, but I was told that if I worked hard for six months, I’d be eligible for bonuses and raises (that never came). I fell into what I call “nonprofit martyr mode” and felt guilty about advocating for the value of my skills—if I was dedicated to this organization’s work, how dare I be so greedy as to ask for a fair wage? I deluded myself into thinking that I was sacrificing my material needs for the sake of “the movement,” and I kept quiet, afraid of losing this work opportunity.
I felt uncomfortable and frustrated about my compensation, and so I left about a year later for another job, which came with excellent benefits and better wages. However, this new gig was in education, a field in which you’re constantly being told that resources are extremely limited—especially when you attempt to negotiate for a higher salary. So I never asked for a raise. I wasn’t confident enough to state my terms, as I had as a child—terms that I knew would be mutually beneficial for my higher-ups and myself.
It was a full five years after that that I finally decided to get to the root of my fears and anxieties about negotiation. I signed up for a negotiation-coaching course with She Negotiates University. SNU taught me how to invest in myself, strengthen my finances, and save myself from future resentment, tears, and missed opportunities; but the most valuable lessons I learned were about my personal power and potential.
SNU asked us to keep journals of our personal and professional negotiations. Our coaches helped us set individual goals, shared their expertise, and led us in role-plays where we practiced initiating and implementing money conversations and agreements, and discussed how sexism can impact women in our negotiations.
In my journaling and role plays, I realized that a lot of the discomfort I felt about financial negotiations originated in times when I undersold myself, undermined my skills and expertise, or hid in the shadows so that I wouldn’t be punished for being perceived as “too much,” “too intense,” “too aggressive,” or “too demanding” because of social norms and cultural stigmas related to my age, race, and gender.
SNU taught me to be a better negotiator, but not in the ways I thought it would. I thought that I would get some technical negotiating pointers; but instead I was forced to confront, address, and then transcend the underlying issues that were stopping me from asking for things on my own behalf.
I took away five main things from this training:
1. Own your power. I used to view power and earning potential as things that authority figures might give to me if I was “good,” rather than things I already had. I now see every negotiation as an opportunity to collaborate to find outcomes, to leverage what I already possess, and, finally, to get practice asking for what I want, even if I don’t get my desired result every time.
2. Know thyself. I learned that it is always best to go into any negotiation having a strong sense and understanding of your self-worth (and your bottom line) before you can expect others to recognize and affirm your value.
3. Negotiations are relationships. Now, I approach every one of these situations by asking for what I want and choosing to believe that my negotiation partners want a mutually beneficial outcome (which they usually do). As in any relationship, honest and clear communication is key, and passive aggression is more likely to hinder a relationship rather than help it grow.
4. Practice does make perfect. I loved the role-plays so much at SNU that I now practice negotiations with my partner, my parents, and my besties whenever I need to prepare to make a big ask. I enjoy having an opportunity to hear feedback, anticipate potential questions, and get advice about ways I can make my case even stronger.
5. Enjoy the silence, and don’t be afraid to walk away. Being confident enough to walk away from a bad deal and suffering through awkward silences or criticism instead of capitulating any time I feel uncomfortable has been a priceless and powerful lesson.
Appreciating your own value and asking for what you need are incredibly important acts of self-care. Knowing how to unapologetically ask for stuff has implications beyond salary or grade decisions. Whether you’re negotiating safe-sex measures with a potential partner, setting healthy boundaries with friends and family, standing up to a dominating teacher, or facing off with your supervisor, you’ll need to know how to express your needs in order to thrive.
Studying negotiation and strengthening my bargaining mojo rocked my world; that journey revealed to me that I value myself most when I’m speaking and standing for my truth in any and all situations—with or without repercussions. Now that I have embraced the art of unapologetically asking for I want, I’m feeling more like my much braver, bolder, badass little Mia self—and it feels amazing. ♦