Do you ask for what you (really) want?

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you seen this post on Reddit?

It’s not new, but it’s a must-read for anyone applying for a job:

Today I finished interviewing my third new hire this month, two of
which are women. They both are getting paid substantially less than the
man I hired earlier this month, and to be honest I am getting tired of
that. I don’t set the wages, I just handle negotiations (HR has to
approve every offer I make).

Our process, despite the pay gap, is identical for men and women. We
start with phone interviews, and move into a personal and technical
interview. Once a candidate passes both of those, we start salary
negotiations. This is where the women seem to come in last.

The reason they don’t keep up, from where I sit, is simple. Often, a
woman will enter the salary negotiation phase and I’ll tell them a
number will be sent to them in a couple days. Usually we start around
$45k for an entry level position. 50% to 60% of the women I interview
simply take this offer. It’s insane, I already know I can get
authorization for more if you simply refuse. Inversely, almost 90% of
the men I interview immediately ask for more upon getting the offer.

Asking for what you want and need is, for many people — women, especially — a terrifying, overwhelming challenge.

So they don’t.

They wimp out, then walk around, sometimes for years, pissed off at themselves for not being bolder, for not really putting their desire on the line, whether for better pay or a raise or a personal matter that really needs resolving.

English: Chungking Negotiation at 1946
English: Chungking Negotiation at 1946 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe you really want more respect or attention or more time alone in silence. Or for your husband to stop throwing his wet towels on the bed or your kids to not throw a fit when you expect them to empty the dishwasher or clean up their rooms.

What’s the worst that can happen if you ask?

A tantrum

A fight over how “demanding” and unreasonable you are

You lose that gig/client/job offer

They’re rude or nasty to you

Then, what’s your fallback?

I know this, having grown up in a family where negotiation was rarely an option. You learn, quickly, not to ask because asking for what you want, (which, within limits, is healthy), because you know it’s going to cause conflict.

And everyone wants to avoid conflict, so some people just end up caving and resenting and sighing and feeling crappy.


The best choice I ever made — from 2007 to 2009 when I really needed some steady income — was to work retail part-time, selling clothing at a local mall; here’s the book I wrote about it.

The money was low, $11/hr, with no commission, but it taught me the most useful skill — how to ask for what I want, simply and clearly and without endless foot-shuffling or hand-wringing,

In retail, in business, it’s called closing the deal. It is scary! I still dread that moment of self-assertion, but I do it more often and more quickly now — and my business is doing better as a result. I did it yesterday, dreading (worst case) the client in question was deeply unhappy with my work and would never use me again.

(Helloooooo….that’s called catastrophizing. Turned out much better than that. Whew.)

But I had to ask. And I had to conquer, still, my discomfort with it.

I want every woman who works for income to read this fantastic book, “Women Don’t Ask”, which intelligently addresses why we don’t, (usually for fear of pissing people off.)

Women, especially, can get really nasty with other women who ask — because some are themselves terrified of asking, then resent us for having the cojones to do it, which may also force them to ask someone they’re scared to push on our behalf.

Do you ask for what you want, in work and in your personal life?

Do you get it?

35 thoughts on “Do you ask for what you (really) want?

  1. I once used my resume as a subtle threat that if I did not get a substantial increase, I would be shopping it around. I had a new manager and all I had to say was, ” I don’t believe you’ve seen my resume, have you? It’s updated !”

    He could see how good my skills looked on paper and the revenue I brought the company. A few weeks later, I got a five figure increase. What pushed me to do it was finding out that men who had less experience and were bringing in less product sales were being paid more.

  2. Excellent post Caitlin. Putting ourselves out there is scary and difficult because we never know how us championing ourselves will be received.

    Late last year I was looking to increase my salary and went to have a chat with my supervisor. We have a good relationship so I didn’t feel too intimidated to tell her that I deserved more money than what I was being paid. She agreed and I got as much of an increase they could afford to give me. But it wasn’t enough and they knew it. Less than six months ago, I took a job elsewhere for more money but because of what I did last year, I have much more confidence to go to bat for me.

    1. Thanks!

      Exactly my point. Because what happens when we do not get what we want?

      I like your confidence…and it’s terrific that it paid off for you, literally. I think courage is a muscle; use it or lose it…and the more you DO use it, the stronger it gets. You then realize the “no” won’t kill you — and the yes is a nice win.

  3. I hated that moment in retail…all those outfits laying there…which one do you want…how can I further help you…one day I guy bought them all. I was shocked. His wife said…”he hasn’t bought new clothes in over 15 years, we are taking it all.” Now I wasn’t working on commission, but I was hired for Christmas and I wanted to stay on after Christmas. So I had to rack up the numbers.

    The asking is so difficult, and sometimes there really is nothing to lose by asking. So why don’t we ask more? I asked for something the other day…granted. I like my new school!

    1. I sort of liked it…I liked having sales goals — I usually tripled them! I do poorly without a clear goal so retail was satisfying in that way — but not the day I sold $500+ an hour on $11/hour. That’s just exploitative.

      Glad your new school is working out. It sounds great.

    1. I haven’t negotiated a salary since 2005 — and freelance is useless, at least in journalism. Rates are lousy and everyone else accepts them, so those who don’t are deemed divas, It’s making me hate this work…no reward for experience or excellence. I love writing but hate being under-valued.

  4. I am in full agreement with your comments, and know in America, women on average are paid 75 cents for every dollar (100 cents) a man makes. This patriarchal entitlement is rampant, and when people complain about their salaries, many times it is because they did not negotiate at the time of hire. This lack of negotiation by women is indeed taught at an early age (aka as socialization), so we as women do have to press through our discomfort to over-come the internal voice which says, “You better not. Take what you can get now,” or rationalizing their discomfort to press on, “I only want to get my foot in the door.” You are right, Caitlin, men do not often have this self-talk. I base my comments of working with clients as a licensed therapist (and the research papers I did in graduate school regarding sexism and diversity).

    1. Thanks for that insight…

      It’s really depressing to me that women — STILL — so internalize these feelings of low self-esteem or think (hah) some guy will rescue them financially so they don’t “need” the money. Yes, we do! When 50% of marriages end in divorce and so many men fail to support their children (good luck getting alimony if you have skills or a degree), you need to earn as much as you possibly can every working day.

  5. Steve

    Just a little note from the employer perspective if I might. First, there is nothing wrong with asking for more money whether it is salary or hourly. Most employers, at least those that I know of have a different mindset than most people that work FOR someone. mainly the bottom line, IE: “am I making a profit?” if you are going to the boss to demand more wages, stop and ask yourself if you’re worth more wages Are you on time? Do you complain when asked to do something extra for the company? Do you get along with everyone else in the company? And the most important question to answer, do I make this company money? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you just might find yourself looking for a new job.

    1. Having employed assistants for more than a decade — paying $10-12-15/hour for their skills, even when they were students — I am aware that anyone who expects payment has to add value. I agree. I recently met with someone who wants $25/hour, (and she has terrific skills and experience.) I just can’t afford her, right now. Is she “worth it”? She comes very highly recommended by friends who have managed their own firms, so I imagine she is.

      The only point you make I disagree with is:”Do I make this company money?”

      And for the reason that for many jobs it is very unclear who EXACTLY is adding (or subtracting) the most value. I’ll give you a very specific example. I write for the New York Times a lot. My stories have been the third most read of the ENTIRE day’s paper — more than staffers making $150k+ a year. For pennies. It pisses me off. I add tremendous value (if “value” in that world, as it is, is measured by readership and comments, usually 250+.) I get paid the same poor wages as people whose stuff is really boring.

      There is often no clear metric to measure someone’s individual added value. In retail, there was. I liked that, a lot.

      I also know that a business’ success or failure can very rarely be laid at the feet of one person. You know that as well. I could blame my assistants for not making me more money by being better at *their* jobs — but it’s also MY job to do all the marketing, pricing, production…If you own your own firm, as you and I do, you also have to take full responsibility for your own weaknesses and failures. We rarely do every single thing perfectly. Nor do our staff.

  6. Steve

    That’s right to an extent but by your example, if the NYT dose not publish stories in their paper that people want to read, they won’t sell as many newspapers, which by the way is exactly what is happening now. They have a predetermined political agenda that the people that buy their paper are no Longer willing to pay for. If they don’t figure it out they will eventually go out of business because they don’t provide a product that people will buy. You are only one small piece of the bottom line of the NYT, but you are a piece. What would happen if you took your popular piece to a competitor that was willing to pay you twice as much for your piece and it say doubled their readership? That’s how it works

    In my case, I can’t do all that my company needs by myself as efficiently as when my employees work and increase my efficiency and thus my bottom line, but there is a point that can become too costly and I will either choose to do it myself, cease to do it or find someone else that will fill that need for a lesser price. that should be MY CHOICE, not a mandate from Washington. It is after all MY business, contrary to public opinion, I AM the one who built it, at least that’s the way I remember it!

    1. “What would happen if you took your popular piece to a competitor that was willing to pay you twice as much for your piece and it say doubled their readership? That’s how it works”

      That would be lovely. My industry, in fact, does NOT work like that. They now see writing as a commodity product and refuse to pay for it. So it hardly matters who you sell to. They all pay — except for a very few — badly and late; I am now having editors, (who collect regular paychecks), tell me they expect writers to wait **four to six months** or more for completed, accepted work.

      I cannot pay my monthly bills under those conditions.

      And since people are lined up for their crummy pay, they see no reason to offer more.

      1. Steve

        Sorry to hear that. I’ve read some of your stuff. I don’t often agree with you but you are a good writer. I personally would tell them all to go to hell and either publish directly, through books and such or I would take up another profession where my talent would be appreciated. I would starve to death before Imwould let someone demean me, but that’s me. I’ve washed dishes and delivered newspapers and carried shingles and went hungry and been without heat and food in the fridge. Everybody and I mean everybody has an opportunity in this country to achieve whatever level of greatness they are willing to work hard to achieve. A lot of people quit before they even get started but it can be done if you really want to

      2. I’m not 20 or 30 or even 40, and the notion of starting a whole new business from the very bottom is not viable financially for me right now. I will see if there is any interest in my design services, even as a part-time new business for me. That would be terrific.

        Journalism and publishing are rarely financially rewarding except for a very, very few people — by “rewarding” I mean a steady $100-150k/yr plus, which in NY and environs is joke money. Plenty of people are thrilled to get $40-60k/year, which may be a ton of cash in some parts of the U.S. but not here!

        There is no co-relation between talent, hard work and pay in these industries. I’ve been doing it long enough to see that quite clearly. It is not demeaning — it’s simply annoying. The entire industry is in real chaos.

        Self-publishing is not a route that makes sense to me right now; I can’t afford to spend a year unpaid doing the research needed to write a work on non-fiction, then publish and promote it at my own expense as well. It may be a terrific model for writers of fiction and poetry.

  7. Steve

    Think outside the box. You are a unique person with a unique gift that no one else has. How can you harness that and market it to make a living doing what YOU do best? You’ve spent a long time doing what everyone else does that’s why you get paid like everyone else. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. Maybe you shouldn’t be doing print journalism. I’m 57 and was a self taught carpenter al my life with a high school education. I basically started over 5 years ago doing something completely different. It wasn’t and isn’t easy to swim in a different direction, trust me, I get it but it can be done. Surround yourself with people that will encourage to reach out higher than you ever thought you could go and dream big, you CAN do it. a dream without a plan is nothing more than a wish! (I feel like Tony Robbins giving a positive thinking speech…Good grief!)

    1. Whew!

      All worth thinking about. I spent this evening at an event where I ran into some of my interior design school profs — so good to see them again — and came away with some new ideas and contacts. We’ll see what happens next.

  8. Such a great post and comments. I have issues being assertive and asking for what I want, even putting a numeric value on my skills, experience and talent. It’s something I need to work on. Thanks for the “Women Don’t Ask” suggestion. I’m going to check it out.

    Btw, as much as freelancing might be frustrating, it seems to have taught you some valuable lessons and strengthened your independence and negotiating tactics. Is that a fair assessment? Maybe freelancing (and woes that come with it) has prepared you for the next chapter, whatever that may be.

    1. That book is life-changing. I can’t recommend it too highly.

      I think it has. The larger challenge now is trying to extract a much higher income from my skills and talents than journalism is providing. We’ll see what happens. I have a few ideas and am reaching out in some wholly new directions to see where they go.

      (When can I read you latest draft?)

  9. Sorry. I have been a blue collar worker my entire life, and for the last thirty years of my working career, a union member. I only write this because I had a thought while reading this post–unions get a bad rap when they ask for what they want, yet they are simply doing, collectively, what an assertive person acting in their own best interest would do.
    Of course that statement doesn’t even touch on the enormous debate concerning organized labor, but I find it interesting that ALL of this comes down to power, and money. It’s what we do. Asking for what you want is a dangerous thing, no matter who you are. Fairness enters in, but if I were entirely cynical, which I am not, really, it is just an idea that is sometimes used in bargaining. (I cite the trend among huge corporations to mouth the phrase, “because it is the right thing to do.” Like they care.) But I always wish everyone the best of luck, if that’s what you want to call it, in making the best living they can. I’m just afraid fairness and honor, as Rob Roy put it in the movie of the same name, are just gifts you give yourself.

    1. Thanks for this…

      I know firsthand what unions can and can’t do, and why some people REALLY need their help. I worked retail only part-time but it taught me that my self-confidence to speak up in meetings and ask for things we all wanted was unusual – it did, potentially, put me at risk for lost/cut hours or even being fired.

  10. I had an interview today and thought about this post when the salary question came up. I actually read
    this blog post a few days ago and I am glad that I did. I asked for more than I usually would and the HR Manager said yes without batting an eyelash. Thank You for posting! It worked.along with my certifications and degree of course.

  11. Catching up with all your posts again. This one resonated with me in particular. Job wise I’ve always been one of those who have taken what I’ve been offered, without negotiating for more. I don’t honestly believe my skills are worth that much to any employer, so most of the time, I’m just grateful they want me in the first place – yes, an all too familiar refrain!

    10 months of perpetual travel brought to mind some realizations of self worth from a professional point of view. I think back to the last job at the Matrix and realize that my worth on the team was measured, and accounted for, by more than just my technical skills (I worked in IT). I brought a lot more to the table than that. It’s just taken being away from that environment and its politics and particular mode of conduct, to see it.

    So next time I’ll be asking for what I want when I get another job (because face it, it’s gonna happen at some stage).

    In the realm of personal life, this year has been all about not only asking for what I want, but learning how to make it happen. What a ride!

    1. It’s too funny you popped in again — yay! I literally thought of you last night and wondered where you were. 🙂

      Travel will do that, especially to a woman. I found the courage to end my first marriage after a conversation with a German guy on a beach in Thailand. To be thousands of miles away from old perceptions and patterns and habits is incredibly freeing.

      1. I completely agree. This is quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

        I’ve been in Copenhagen, Morocco, Spain and am now back in Mexico – got in 2 days ago. Gonna spend a few months here. Going to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead in a couple of weeks!

      2. I am so impossibly jealous — as these are all my favorite places, esp. Mexico which Jose will not allow us to visit anymore (narcoterrorism.)

        I love the places you’ve been to (and have been there) but not yet Morocco. Sigh.

        I narrowly missed two great last-minute opp’s this month — renting an apt. in Paris or one in Berlin. Too bad I don’t have a spare $2,000 just lying around all the time. I need to create an escape fund.

      3. You would absolutely love Morocco. It’s so very very old and there is something in the air that still rings of this age. It was a bit of a shock going from Copenhagen to Morocco though. Copenhagen is so relaxed and literally do-whatever-you-want, where Morocco, despite being moderate for a Muslim country and being used to the difference of tourists/travellers, I found a little bit disconcerting that public life revolves around men, and women, while visible, still have less autonomy. Getting and staying sick halfway through probably didn’t help this at all, as I was a fair bit grumpier than I would normally be!

      4. It is fascinating/instructive to appreciate firsthand the freedoms we take for granted as Western women with education and income. I spent a few months traveling alone in my early 20s and spent Easter Sunday in rural Portugal — I was the only woman anywhere in public, with about 50 guys. Very weird. I was never frightened, but it made me much more appreciative of what seemed “normal” behavior in North America.

      5. Absolutely. It boggles the mind that a mere 9 km separates Tangier and Tarifa (Spain, where we got the ferry to Tangier), and the differences are oceans apart. We were sitting in a cafe having mint tea and having a heart to heart chat with a local guy sitting next to us. The conversation turned to family and he was fascinated by my response when he asked about children (“none. Don’t want any”). In that moment, I was so thankful to be born where I had been, because that stroke of pure luck meant I had access to those freedoms.

        I’ve learnt to be profoundly grateful for many, many things in the last 10 months. That I have had the autonomy to deal with the challenges presented to me, my way. That in itself is a gift.

      6. Oh yeah. Having more freedoms than others doesn’t at all negate the challenges we do face – it makes us differently (better?) equipped to deal with different hardships. That is also something I’ve learnt!

      7. I think travel, alone, overseas, is a great way to really begin to see how much we have in common as humans, but how differently we’re socialized and rewarded, or punished, for responding to social norms.

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