(Illustration Credit: Jennifer Williams)

Why I’m just like Jennifer Lawrence

You may have come across Jennifer Lawrence’s recent article for Lenny. In it she writes about her experience finding out (at the same time as millions around the world) that she had been paid a sizeable amount less than her male colleagues for her role in ‘American Hustle’. It turns out that gender inequality is alive and kicking in Hollywood, just as non-film-star women get paid less than their male counterparts for the same work all around the world. I’m impressed by J-Law’s maturity when she confesses, “I didn’t get mad at Sony” – the company paying her salary – “I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”

In each of the jobs I’ve applied for there has been an advertised salary. Each time I got a job offer I gratefully accepted it (and didn’t ever think to ask for more than what was being offered to me). But now things have changed.

I’ve moved from the UK, where jobs come advertised with salaries, to New Zealand, where they don’t. It’s quite a minefield. At the end of each of my interviews I’ve been asked, “And what are your salary expectations?”

I find it an almost impossible question to answer. Too high and they’ll think I’m wasting their time, not living in the real world or that I have a massively over-inflated ego. Too low and they’ll think I’m not up to the job or, realising that they’ve struck gold, take me on at way under my real value to them. But going back to Jennifer Lawrence for a moment, I believe that this is a male/female issue. Lawrence explains that when the scandal broke:

I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.” At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.”

I’ve been embarrassed, if I’m honest, about my appalling negotiation skills. I started out meeting recruiters giving a range of salaries I’d be happy to accept, emphasising the ‘rock-bottom’ number I would definitely not go below. Then, when I started getting real job interviews and they asked me about my salary expectations, I only went and gave them my rock-bottom figure. Why would I do that?! Am I crazy? If my fiancé did that I’d think he was an idiot and tell him to not be so ridiculous.

I did it for a number of reasons. One: I was scared. I really, really want a job, and I don’t want them to not offer it to me because I’m too expensive. Two: I work in the charity sector, which has to be careful with its limited money, and pays less than the commercial sector, so I felt I had to offer them a ‘charity’ price for my services. Three: I don’t want them to perceive me as pushy or unreasonable.

This last one is a particularly girly one. My idol, Facebook COO and ‘Lean In’ author Sheryl Sandberg thinks that women have to be careful when negotiating. “We expect men”, she says, “to be assertive and look out for themselves, so there’s little downside when they advocate on their own behalf.” By contrast, when women stand up for themselves, “we – both men and women – often react unfavourably”. So it’s sad but true, people don’t warm to pushy women.

What has really surprised me is that this way of recruiting people in New Zealand actually doesn’t seem to push women’s wages down and men’s up. In fact, the gender pay gap is lower here than in the UK, and the proportion of women CEOs higher. I’m not sure why that is, but I wonder if New Zealand girls are brought up differently to their British sisters. Maybe they don’t have as much gender baggage as women in the UK and US seem to.

As for me, I’m kicking myself for giving that rock bottom figure in my first interview, my preferred job, because it’s going to make negotiating even harder going forward. When I revise my number upwards they might be annoyed at me for messing them about, think that I’m being cheeky or wonder why I didn’t give them that number in the first place. It’s only through taking the risk and suggesting a higher salary in interview number two, and a higher one still in interview number three, that I’ve discovered how much I can get away with. And it’s quite a bit higher than my rock bottom.

Now, just like J-Law, I’ve got to man up, literally behave more like a man, and negotiate hard. It’s not something that comes easily to me – or to many women – but I’ve got to give it a go. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “Given that women are generally paid less than men, we would both be disappointed if I didn’t negotiate for myself.”

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