(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)
In the board game “Sorry,” two players cannot occupy the same space at the same time. You roll the dice, and if you land on a space where another player is already standing, they’re knocked back to where they started. Their progress is lost, and you’re left apologizing. “Sorry!” you say — with or without sincerity. Sorry, because I took up space that someone was using. Sorry, because I went and put myself out there, rolled the dice, and got somewhere. Sorry, I got in another person’s way.
This game made perfect sense to me as a girl, because I was taught to move through the world in pretty much that same way. It was impolite to take up space, even metaphorically, because somebody else might need it. “I’m sorry,” was the all-purpose reply if I drew too much attention, made too much noise or did anything that might possibly annoy anyone.
You’re not greedy if you want to be paid well. And you’re not stealing from the women next to you by speaking up.
Not every girl grows up with this message, of course. And not every girl who is taught the “I’m sorry” reflex carries it into adulthood. But too many of us walk through our days apologizing for things as innocuous as stepping through a doorway at the same moment as someone else. “I’m sorry,” we say to strangers and friends and coworkers. Sorry to bother you. Sorry to be asking a question, pointing out a problem, standing in a crowded room. And most troubling: Sorry to ask about getting paid.
That last one is toxic, and it’s one we’ve got to conquer.
I belong to a group of working female writers, some of whom serve as editors at popular magazines and well-funded websites. These women often invite the group to pitch them story ideas. As you’d imagine, upbeat replies like “Thanks so much” and “Pitch on its way to you shortly” bloom within minutes beneath these offers of potential work. It’s the networking system functioning as it should — employers connecting with qualified potential employees.
But then, the stumbling block. One member of the group types the question on everyone’s mind, and often she begins with an apology. “So sorry to ask,” she’ll type, “but I’m just wondering what the pay might be? Don’t mean to sound greedy, just curious for budgeting purposes. Thanks so much.” I’m always left wondering whether successful working men would ever feel as uncomfortable as women about asking whether a potential job offer includes a reasonable, and perhaps negotiable, wage.
What’s encouraging is that these apologies about money have sparked an ongoing conversation within the group. Women are asking each other (and asking themselves rhetorically, for the benefit of the group) how it’s possible that in the year 2015 there could be so many talented, hardworking women apologizing for wanting to get paid for their work.
The reaction has been supportive: There’s a group-wide understanding that it’s no surprise many women freeze up over this issue. We’ve all seen the backlash so many working women receive these days when they negotiate for a better job offer or push for a merit raise they’ve rightly earned. We know that with so many companies cutting back staff and tightening budgets, money is a fraught subject. There is no clear roadmap, especially in creative industries where so many of us work as independent contractors.
There are also the cultural constraints that so many of us grew up learning. Girls raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s by mothers who grew up in the ‘50s were told to give and to share. Many of us watched our moms focus entirely on what everyone else needed, always considering themselves last. And we were rewarded or praised when we gave someone else the bigger piece of pie or the chance to be in charge. We may have consciously moved on from that kind of thinking, but it’s worth asking ourselves whether it’s still bubbling somewhere beneath the surface.
It’s not an easy thing to change, but we’ve got to. The question is how we make that happen.
Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao has recently launched a new workaround for this problem. Last week, she told The Wall Street Journal that she has eliminated all salary negotiations at her company to create a level playing field between men and women. “Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,” she told the Journal. “So as part of our recruiting process, we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.”
That’s a creative solution, and it probably will be helpful to a few women in the short run. But developing a method and a culture where women can successfully negotiate would be even better.
It starts, I believe, with telling ourselves (out loud in the mirror, if necessary) that we’re not transgressing by wanting to be paid fairly for our hard work. It grows when we realize that we’re helping other women each time one of us calmly negotiates for pay without apology or hesitation. And it becomes part of the culture when we start clear and productive conversations with other women about the importance of discussing money without fear.
You’re not greedy if you want to be paid well. And you’re not stealing from the women next to you by speaking up. Ditch the “Sorry” mentality when it comes to money, and replace it with something much more productive: Maybe”Risk.” Or even better, “Mastermind.”