Closing The Gap

I went on 100 interviews in 8 months. This is what it's like to negotiate your salary as a black woman

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After graduating college in 2011, I was confident about entering the workforce. After all, I had followed all the advice to set myself up for success, including completing five internships. 

I did my research for each job interview — studying the company's mission, culture and specific job requirements. More importantly, I gathered data on the salary range based on experience level, location and job title. 

Much to my surprise, however, I ended up going on more than 100 interviews in eight months. I had the same experience over and over again: a lot of back-and-forth and little success.

When I finally landed a job offer in public relations, the starting salary offered was significantly lower than the average pay in the industry (for a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree). "Just take what they give you," my parents insisted. "Negotiating your salary will only make you look bad."

But I refused to back down. I came back with market data to prove my worth, along with a list of reasons why I'd be a great addition to the team — but they didn't budge. I took the job anyway, because I didn't feel like I had a choice.

While graduates who received their degrees in 2011 faced one of the worst job markets, there was another factor that made entering the workforce even more of an uphill battle for me: Being a black woman.

As I watched my non-black peers land exciting jobs, I grew more and more embarrassed that I was still making a lot less money. I felt defeated and was tight-lipped about my challenges.

'Black women are woefully undervalued'

Ask any career expert for advice, and one of the first things they'll tell you is to always negotiate your salary. As long as you're strategic and do your research, they insist, it won't hurt your chancing of getting the job.

Unfortunately, if you're a black person, racial bias can lessen the offer you receive — no matter how much you prepare for the interview, according to a 2019 study published by the American Psychological Association.

"Racially biased hiring managers often see black job seekers as less deserving of higher monetary awards and take issue when they ask for more money," Morela Hernandez, a business professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, tells CNBC Make It.

Here's another discouraging fact: While women overall in the U.S. earn about 80 cents for each dollar paid to men, black women get 61 cents for every dollar that their white male counterparts are paid, according to a 2019 report from the National Women's Law Center, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

While graduates who received their degrees in 2011 faced one of the worst job markets, there was another factor that made entering the workforce even more of an uphill battle for me: Being a black woman.

The difference over a 40-year career would mean earning about $946,000 less. Even worse, according to the analysis, the disparity exists in both low- and high-paying positions, regardless of education, location and experience.

"Black women are woefully undervalued," Sabrina Garba, founder and CEO of Glass Ladder Group, a management consulting agency, tells CNBC Make It. "The problem is systemic prejudice and bias."

Garba recalls her first salary negotiation being a "complete disaster" that left her in tears. "I got a call from the hiring manager, who told me the starting salary would be $42,000," she says. "I tried to get it up to $50,000, which was the average wage — but was immediately cut off. He said there was absolutely no flexibility."

She later learned that, prior to receiving the offer, her recruiter assured the company that Garba would accept the $42,000. "In a way, she negotiated on my behalf without telling me," Garba says. "Even though she had good intentions, and believed that it was the best I could get 'as a black woman,' I felt completely devalued."

Moving toward change

Don't get me wrong: There are a handful of black women who have been able to successfully negotiate their salaries and get what they deserve.

Based on my own experience (and through my conversations with others), however, that doesn't happen as often as it should. Another problem is that many black women have been conditioned to believe that anything we receive beyond the bare minimum is a blessing.

More people, regardless of their race and gender, need to be aware of these issues. We must work hard to create positive changes, so that women of all races can have the ability to negotiate their salaries and fight pay discrimination.

Here are some expert tips on how we can start fixing the problem:

1. Employers need to recruit more women in leadership roles.

"It's unfortunate that there's a lack of representation of black women in leadership roles," Cassandra Holdsclaw-Williams, co-founder of Coins Over Gossip, a leadership development conference for black women, tells CNBC Make It. "We need to hear from more women who look like us, who have achieved a high level of success — so that we know it's possible [to be compensated fairly]."

Tonya Rapley, a financial consultant and founder of My Fab Finance, recalls being in many situations where she felt like she had no allies, but her white counterparts did. "They had people who were invested in their success. That's not always the case for black women," she says.

Seeking out mentors has certainly made an impact on my career. Finding one may be difficult, since black professionals today hold just 3.2% of executive and senior manager positions, but it isn't impossible. Mentors can help you build your resume, set up meetings with hiring managers, refine your pitches and even conduct mock interviews.

2. Be confident, despite the data.

When you have hard proof that the odds aren't in your favor, it can be difficult to muster the courage to negotiate. But what helps to overcome that fear is understanding the value you can bring to an organization, says Holdsclaw-Williams.

Rapley says that what initially destroyed her confidence was hearing stories from other black women who believed that negotiating their salaries actually backfired.

But you also don't want to be the person who regrets not negotiating at all. "I eventually realized that other people's experiences or perceptions don't always apply to me," says Rapley. "There were dynamics that occurred with them, and those dynamics might not always apply to my own earning potential."

3. Do your research.

Based on her experience interviewing and hiring black women, Holdsclaw-Williams says the most successful negotiations have one common thread: "The candidates clearly did their research and were strategic with how they approached the negotiation process. They knew the exact amount they wanted and why they deserved it."

However, she adds, it's important not to mix confidence with arrogance. Be firm, but also enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity. Also, come with as much data as possible: Know what others make in the position you're interviewing for and what the average pay rate for the company is, she says. It shows how informed and detail-oriented you are. 

4. Don't be afraid to say no.

Black women often don't have the luxury to decline a job offer if it doesn't meet their salary requirements. But depending on your situation, walking away isn't always a bad thing.

"I often hear women say; 'I needed the job, so I just took the offer.' But it's unlikely for a [good] company to rescind an offer just because you negotiated. And if they do, you probably don't want to work there anyway," says Garba. "A company with a healthy culture will respect a candidate more if they negotiate because it shows they confidently know their worth."

What's more, saying no can sometimes work in your favor. Holdsclaw-Williams says there were many times when she felt pressured to meet a candidate's salary requirements.

"I mean, they were talented and qualified. The fact that they were so confident and unafraid to pass on the opportunity made me feel like I had to give them what they asked for. I didn't want to lose them," she says.

5. Negotiate with the future in mind.

Holdsclaw-Williams' co-founder, Ashley Williams, encourages black women to also negotiate with their future financial goals in mind.

"The biggest myth is that we should only be asking for what we financially need right now," she explains. "We should be thinking about where we want to be three to five years from now."

Also, it doesn't always have to be about the money. According to career and leadership expert Kimberly B. Cummings,  there are several other benefits that can be negotiated.

"Some of the most popular benefits include additional vacation time and remote working arrangements," Cummings wrote in a blog post. "While this may not increase the amount of your paycheck, it may increase your overall work-life satisfaction."

Brittney Oliver is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. She has written for several online publications, including Essence, Fast Company and Huffington Post. She was a keynote speaker at LinkedIn's first conference for women of color in 2019. Forbes recently listed her as one of "Nine Black Women Leaders Dedicated to Empowering Others."

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