Negotiation Tips for Moms

Woman gesturing with light bulb representing her ideas or point of view
Be Heard

As stressful as it is, I actually love preparing for a negotiation. There are very few situations in which the power of words is more explicit. What you say, how you say it, and the truth behind those words all have the power to make a measurable difference in how things turn out in the end.

One of the best workshops I have ever attended was offered by the Harvard Program on Negotiation. I was there for tips on advocating for my own child with special needs, and could barely suppress an eye-roll when they announced we would be doing a role-play as opera singer vs. opera house owner.

However, as I prepared to play my part, I discovered something startling: rather than stand up for my own interests (I played the opera singer), I felt compelled to start with a compromise. That is, I felt almost a compulsion to set aside what I actually wanted in order to make the opposing party feel like I was being reasonable.

According to research in sociology and economics, many women seem to struggle with selling ourselves short. Countless studies and experts will share their theories on why women do not negotiate salaries as frequently or as successfully as men. Being a professional and a mother has made advocating for myself feel even more fraught, given all the calculations and compromises required when one’s own interests actually do come second — after the needs of one’s children. Added to all this is the very real bias that women face when seeking to actualize our power. All together, these factors make negotiation very complicated.

Here’s my strategy:

  1. Define what’s negotiable and make sure you’re negotiating with the right person
    Some things cannot be changed. Organizations have budgets and new employees generally make less than their managers. Middle managers don’t have the final say and therefore aren’t in a position to negotiate. If I am negotiating for a change of plan, a different schedule, or anything that costs money, I better know what’s actually possible — and be talking to the person to do something about it.

    I have wasted many hours constructing highly detailed and well-researched arguments for things that I believed should change, only to discover later that the person I was bargaining with had very little power to do anything about it.

    Some things aren’t open to negotiation, but can still be changed. For instance, when you hit your pay ceiling, you can find another job. Feel like your coworkers don’t respect you? Stop caring what they think. Believe that something fundamentally wrong is going on? Exercise your rights.

    Advocacy, political organizing, and personal growth are all ways to get things to change — but these are different than negotiation.
  2. Understand the landscape
    Getting to know the wider context is crucial to defining the “floor” and the “ceiling” of the negotiation. In salary negotiations, LinkedIn and Glassdoor can provide helpful context. For nonprofits, Guidestar provides the organization’s 990 form (tax filing), including salary details for top executives.

    In the special education setting, I try to understand the range of services currently being provided for students with similar disabilities — not to determine what my child needs or should receive, but to understand the overall approach the school district prefers to use. If this landscape doesn’t look adequate, I research what other school districts do to respond to similar needs, and I look closely at the advice of experts, bringing all of this information to the table.
  3. Clearly identify your interests, and theirs

    When entering a negotiation, I try to write down a list of my interests and the interests of the other party. While I cannot be sure I fully know what is on the other party’s mind, this is a place where my finely-honed empathy skills do come in handy.

    Unlike in the role play I described above, the trick is to use empathy to anticipate the other party’s interests in order to disarm them with counter-arguments and alternative proposals. By clearly identifying my own interests, I can then compare the two lists and look for areas of common ground as well as areas where I will need to stay strong and make my case.

    I often want to believe that other people care about me and my family as much I we do. In most cases, they don’t. It is generally the case that other people will put their own needs and interests first.
  4. Use bias to your advantage

    I know I can be a tough negotiator, especially when standing up for what I believe in. The problem for strong women like me is that according to negotiation experts, the stronger our voices, the more likely we are to be met with opposition. While our empathy and kindness puts us at at risk of being dismissed or ignored, signs of strength can be perceived as shrill, aggressive, or “not a team player.”

    This post from Harvard Business Review Ascend recommends that women choose our words carefully, taking the position that meeting our needs is a means for meeting the needs of the other party. Above all, we must act like we want what’s best for them, even as we protect what is best for ourselves.
  5. Think of self-advocacy as a form of self-care

    Negotiation is hard work, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time taking care of others – personally or professionally. It is no wonder that members of historically marginalized groups tend to choose our battles carefully. For us, the importance of the advice, “Take care of yourself” has obvious value. We must build up our own reserves in order to be effective and meet our obligations to others.

    “Take care of yourself” has a deeper meaning for working moms and others who face discrimination on a daily basis. Negotiating and advocating for oneself in a world that does not affirm our value is a vital form of self-care.

    The reality is that it’s no one else’s job to take care of you. It’s not just helpful to take care of yourself — it’s something only you can do.

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