“This is awkward… can I have a pay rise?”: The secret to successful money talks

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Cringe at the idea of demanding more money? You shouldn’t, says feminist author Jessica Bennett – it’s all in the way you ask

Words: Zoë Beaty

We all know we should be doing it. It’s drilled into us on a daily basis among the litany of instructions for modern, healthy, equal living. Hide the refined sugar; don’t feed the Twitter trolls, and for Christ’s sake, if you want more money, then ask for a pay rise. But while it’s all very well setting up a meeting, it’s a different story once you’re sitting in a stuffy office, shifting uncomfortably on a sticky plastic chair and stuttering out a request for an amount you’re not confident about asking for.

There’s no dressing it up though; whether you are a banker or a nursery nurse, if you’re a woman anywhere in the world, then you’re probably earning less than you should be. In fact, studies show there is no country on earth where women make as much as men for the same work*. The UK’s gender pay gap currently stands at 19.2%**. And even though Section 78 of the Equal Pay Act comes into effect next month – forcing all companies with over 250 employees to track their gender pay gap – that data won’t be published until 2018. Meaning we’re still at least two years off it having any kind of transparency to impact cold, hard cash.

Enter feminist author, The New York Times journalist and Lean In contributing editor Jessica Bennett. Known for her sweary, no-nonsense approach to sexism, she’s investigated new linguistic research to uncover how your communication style can impact upon your chance of getting a pay rise – with some surprising methods.

“I’ve asked for pay rises before and on being refused, taken it as a personal failure – that I’m undeserving of the money,” Bennett explains. “But I was wrong. It might seem obvious, but it’s important to remember money is not personal. You’re already up against gender inequality – plus a not insignificant amount of unconscious bias and full-blown gender discrimination. Don’t go up against yourself as well.”

Bennett’s core argument is that even when women do ask for a pay rise, they use language that does them a disservice and ask for less than they should – a figure below inflation, or less than their male peers are getting. “That’s despite research showing that employees who negotiate are promoted 17 months sooner than those who don’t,” she says. So, her new book Feminist Fight Club (£12.99, Penguin) isn’t about why it’s important to ask for a pay rise. It’s about what to say when you’re actually inside that room. She’s even scripted how to respond if your boss says no (scroll down for our exclusive extract). Here, Bennett shares her tried-and-tested rules for the perfect pay rise pitch...

Grin and bear it

“Bear with me. Sh*tty stereotypes exist. They do. We all have to deal with them – like the fact that we’re deemed “pushy” when we ask for a raise, or “bossy” when we’re given an inch of power. We spend most of our time trying to eradicate gender stereotypes, which hold both men and women back. But I’m about to tell you to conform to them. Or, at least, one: smiling.

Research by Carnegie Mellon University professor Linda Babcock shows that women asking for pay rises were deemed aggressive – apart from those who smiled, or appeared friendly. Playing into this stereotype is effective. Make up reasons for why you’re smiling if you need to – make it into a game to get your money. We absolutely should never have to do to this, but it’s short game versus long game. And in feminism, we’re playing the long game.

You have a woman card. Use it

People are afraid of bringing this issue up but we all know that there is a wage gap. It exists. Bringing up the gender pay gap in a workplace context doesn’t have to be – and should not be – an attack on the individual you’re negotiating with. Actually it provides an important context on where we stand. One of my friends has a brilliant tactic – as the meeting about her salary begins, she casually points out to her seniors that there is still a gender wage gap and that women do make less than men. Then, she half-laughingly cites research which found that after women ask for a raise, they’re labelled pushy and aggressive. The tone is jokey and the bosses laugh along – but you’d better believe they are thinking about it afterwards.

But watch out for porkies

Women are more often lied to than men during negotiations by both women and men, a 2014 study showed. Employers might be more inclined to say that there “just isn’t the budget”, when there clearly is – just to fob us off. It’s a tricky one to navigate. But if you’re alert and aware that there might be a few half-truths floating about, you’re more likely to pick up on them. And if you do, you can respectfully challenge them. Just asking someone to explain something in more detail, or pointing out a simple contradiction could throw them – and work in your favour.

Shut the f*** up (sometimes)

I accidentally apologise a lot. I use annoying filler words such as “sorry”, “like” and “sorry” again. But no-one should ever be apologetic about asking for a deserving wage. So stop it. What’s more, I also have a brilliant ability to be so terrified of silence – which is even more uncomfortable than negotiation – that I’ll happily ramble on about absolutely anything to fill it. But if you can learn to be OK with the silence, it can be a weapon.

It’s easy to talk yourself out of something – there is such a thing as over-explaining. I know that by the end of my incessant talking, I am inevitably in a worse place than I was when I started. So keep it short. Practise with a friend and stop after you’ve finished your sentence. No really, shut up.

It's not over until it's over

So what if, after all that, it goes terribly? I had one meeting about pay where I could barely speak. I was bright red and stuttering the entire way through. I replayed it over in my mind and could barely remember what on earth I had said. I walked out a total hot mess. So I followed up with an email that was clean and composed and said exactly what I meant, but somehow failed to communicate at the time. If nothing else, I had peace of mind that I’d been clear... eventually.

Alternatively, you might have made your case perfectly, smiled through gritted teeth, called out liars, used your woman card and remembered to stop talking – but still been refused a raise or promotion (or been offered something way lower than you were expecting). If this happens, don’t take the first offer. There’s always room for more negotiation. Be polite – thank them for their offer, but kindly point out that it’s a little lower than you had in mind. Ask if they can reconsider a compromise that’s a little closer to your original figure. If they push back again, is there anything else they can offer you? Paid leave? Or training? In the event of full blown rejection, ask to set a date in a few months’ time so that your request can be reconsidered, and see if there is anything you can do in the meantime to make it more likely.

If you’re met again with rejection – and you’re quite sure you’re not getting what you deserve – then you know what to do. Get out there and find someone else who will pay you what you’re worth. They’re out there, trust me.”

Show me the money

In an exclusive extract from her book, Feminist Fight Club, Jessica Bennett provides a script for those pay rise talks 

Say this…

When establishing a number:

  • “I’ve done some research, and it looks like the typical pay for somebody at my level is ...”
  • “According to [source of your choosing], the standard rate is ...” (Makes it about market rates, not what you’re worth. Walk into the meeting well researched.)
  • “I typically get ...” (Useful because it provides a frame of reference.)

When making your case:

  • “I feel great about what we accomplished this year.” (Such a team player, aren’t you!) “Based on [insert your best evidence for why you deserve it], I’d like to propose ...” (Still nice but to the point.)
  • The standard inflation rate is ... Based on my performance over [period of time], I’d like to discuss an increase of ...” (Great, you’ve done your research.)
  • If you feel you are doing the work of someone at a higher pay grade than you, make that your basis of negotiation. “I’m a second-year associate doing the work of a third year. I’d like to make my compensation commensurate with my output.” Remember: Keep emotions out of it. Stay data driven and fact based.

When it starts to get heated:

  • “I’m confident we can get to a place we both feel good about.” (Collaborative, not confrontational.)
  • “I think we are close.” (Stays positive and keeps everyone engaged.)

Don't say this…

  • “I can’t afford to live in ...” (Your boss doesn’t care.) 

  • “I have student loans.” (Ditto.)

  • “I’m getting married.” (Nope.)

  • “I’m trying to get pregnant.” (Noooo!)

  • “I’ve been working overtime.” (We all work hard.)

  • “This is what I want and I’ll take nothing less.” (Negotiation is about compromise.) 

  • “I need ...” (OK, but do you really need it? Try “I’d like” or “I propose”.)

  • “I’m sorry, I just want ...” (Do not – repeat: do not! – apologise for talking about money.)

  • “I haven’t had a raise/asked for anything since ...” (Complaining will get you nowhere fast. If you really haven’t asked for a raise in five years, mention this after you’ve made the case based on your work.) 

  • “But I’m doing the work of three people.” (If that’s true, then kudos, you’re killin’ it. But try framing this as an accomplishment instead of a complaint. You need a raise to be made “commensurate” with your workload.)

What to say if they say…

  • “This is higher than what we’ve budgeted for this role.”

    “I understand. I also believe I bring more to the table than the average candidate. [Insert how].”

  • “We don’t think you’re ready for that role.”

    “Help me understand what I can do to be ready.”

  • We are thrilled to offer you (gut-punchingly lower amount than what you wanted)!”

    “Thank you so much. I’m really excited about the opportunity, but ...”

    “What I’d need to feel comfortable accepting this role is ...”

    “If you’re able to match ..., I’d be eager to accept right now.”

    “I know that the typical salary range for this role is ..., and I’m really looking to at least match that figure. Are you able to get to that level?”

  • After an initial round of negotiation: “Unfortunately, we can only go as high as ...”

    Stay silent for long enough to take a breath. Then say, “I appreciate your flexibility in trying to make this work. I really want this job, so I’m hoping we can see what we can do to make both sides comfortable.” (No, you’re not offering a back rub, you’re talking about nonmonetary items like stock, flexibility, benefits.) “How flexible are you with [insert benefit]?”

    “I understand, and I am eager to accept. I’d like to set up a timeline to revisit the terms again in ... months. Is that something you’re open to?” (Sets a concrete framework for a potential bump.)

  • After multiple rounds of negotiation: “I’m sorry, but we can only offer ...”

    Ask them what they can do to make up the difference. (Again: stock, flexibility, benefits, something else.)

    “I understand. What if we set up a timeline to reassess in ... months?

Photography: Getty Images

*according to a 2014 report from the World Economic Forum

**according to the office for National Statistics


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