Women's Guide to Self-Advocacy in the Workplace

The data on women's experience in the workplace reveals why it's so crucial for women to advocate for themselves.

  • A study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) predicts women won't reach pay parity with men until 2059, and pay in some states such as Wyoming, Louisiana, and North Dakota won't reach parity until later.

  • The Institute for Women's Policy Research found that eight in ten sexual harassment charges filed with the EECO were by women, and that the problem disproportionately affected Black women.

  • When women step up and ask for a raise, they get it 15 percent of the time – compared to 20 percent of the time for men, according to a study by Harvard Business Review.

But the workforce is slowly changing as women realize one other important point: It doesn't have to be this way. Women are negotiating their way to those raises. They aren't ignoring harassment or discrimination. They are making themselves heard in the workplace and elsewhere, and in doing so, becoming powerful advocates for themselves. This guide was designed to help in this endeavor.

Why It's Important for Women to Self-Advocate in the Workplace

According to "Women Don't Ask," the groundbreaking book by Laura Babcock, the wage gap between MBA holders was significant at 7.6 percent, with men making the higher salary. But when Babcock dug into the reasons why, she found that only 7 percent of women negotiated for their salary, versus 57 percent of men – and those who negotiated made about 7 percent more income.

Learning to negotiate is a vitally important skill for any woman who wants to advocate for herself in the workplace. But it's certainly not easy to jump into those waters. Here are some of the reasons women don't negotiate, and why it makes a world of difference in their financial bottom line and job satisfaction:

  1. Women aren't always sure what they want. Okay, you know you want more responsibility, challenging work, and a pay raise. Who doesn't want a pay raise? But some women find that it's tough to quantify what they really want, and so they shy away from asking for anything specific. In fact, women are 25 percent less likely than men to ask for a specific amount when negotiating a pay raise, according to the 2017 "Women in the Workplace" study by McKinsey & Company. It's important to remember that those who put a number on the table receive a greater increase in compensation, on average, than those who don't specify what they want.

  2. Women don't always prepare for the conversation. It's important to be highly persuasive during negotiations, but that persuasiveness tends to fall apart if a person can't explain what they want, why they deserve it, and present the evidence to back it up. In addition, a survey by Negotiating Women, Inc. revealed that many women tend to believe that their hard work will be recognized and rewarded by their companies without the need for negotiation of salary.

  3. Women typically don't want to be penalized. Women worry that they might face penalties at work if they ask for a raise. Sadly, in some instances, that might be the case. A 2011 study published in Organization Science found that managers heading into negotiation were likely to give men raises that were two-and-a-half times larger than what they would give a woman in the same position. But if they didn't have to negotiate, they would give the workers equal raises. This suggests that women who negotiate might be at a disadvantage -- which is just another reason why women must learn to negotiate well.

  4. Women may be less likely to believe negotiation will work. Women are well aware of the gender pay gap, as well as some of the reasons why it continues to be a problem, but it's so deeply ingrained in the workplace, it's hard for some women to imagine how they can make a difference. According to a senate study, women's earnings decrease with age while men's earnings continue to rise, and women are promoted to the highest positions in companies with much less frequency than men. In fact, only one in five C-level executives are women. Given this long history of inequality, it can be tough for a woman to believe that for her, it can be different.

  5. Women are often better at negotiating for others. When it comes to asking for something for themselves, women aren't as forceful. When they ask for something for others, they tend to be great negotiators, according to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Margaret A. Neale. And women are well aware of that: A survey of 500 women found that only 15 percent of them believed they could negotiate effectively. If women could channel the excellent negotiating skills they use on the behalf of others into an effort for themselves, they might find that they are actually much better at advocating for themselves than they thought they were.

The Current State of Women in the Workplace

Hiring Disparity

Though women make up 57 percent of college graduates, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level.

The Domino Effect

When a woman doesn't get a fair shake at the entry level, it sets off a domino effect that keeps her legging behind her male counterparts for the rest of her working career. As a result, only one in five C-level executives is a woman. Fewer than one in thirty of those are women of color.

Old Ideas About Work vs Family

The old idea that women will leave their career to focus on their family doesn't have much traction. About 80% of all people who intend to leave their job are simply moving to another company, not leaving the workforce. How many do leave? Two percent or less – and that number is the same whether talking about men or women.

Lack of Diversity in Career Advancement

The climb up the ladder is even more difficult for women of color. Only 47% of white women reported that managers took the time to provide advice to help them advance; for Asian women, that number dropped to 42%. For Latina women, it was 39%, and for Black women, it was a depressingly low 36%.

Lack of Diversity in Promotions

This bias carries over into promotions. White women are promoted at a rate of about 7.4%, while Black women are promoted at a rate of 4.9%. But there is some good news: Perhaps given the way they are treated in a male-dominated workplace, Black women are much more likely to leave their job to start their own business.

Unconscious Bias at Work

Men view the workplace very differently than women do. Nearly 50% of men believe that women are well-represented in organizations where only one of ten senior leaders is female. More than 60% of men believe their company is doing a good job with gender equality, compared to only 49% of women.

Source: Women in the Workplace, 2017, McKinsey & Company

How Women Can Advocate for Themselves

Advocating for yourself in the workplace begins before you're hired, and it doesn't stop once you sign that contract and get your new office. By understanding what you might encounter in both situations, you can be better prepared to handle the issues that might arise. Here's what you need to know to start from a place of power and strength.

Before You're Hired

When you're looking for a job, it's not uncommon to hit a few snags, some of which may require some self-advocacy. From well-crafted questions designed to ask you things that are actually illegal to ask, to being given the run-around when negotiating pay, let's take a look at some of the most common issues and how to combat them.

  • The Challenge: Fighting unfair job interview questions.

  • The Solution: Know the law and plan in advance how you'll react if you encounter this question.

Though most employers are well aware that they shouldn't ask certain questions -- such as whether a woman is pregnant – they will often try to find ways around it. This is especially true at the end of the interview, when everyone is a bit more relaxed and informal.

"Do you have kids?" "Do you plan on having a family?" or "Shall we refer to you as Miss or Mrs.?" are all exploratory questions that can give them a hint to your future personal intentions. These questions often feed into discriminatory hiring practices. Remember that you do not have to answer them.

Though asking these questions is technically not illegal in some areas, being passed over for a job based on your answer or even refusal to answer may give you standing to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the EEOC, "Although asking applicants about pregnancy or their marital or parental status does not violate Title VII, a fact finder is likely to presume that the answers to such questions formed the basis for a selection decision. As a result, if the selection decision is challenged, the fact that the employer made such inquiries will be evidence that the employer unlawfully used sex or pregnancy as a factor in the selection decision."

While you're not required to answer these sorts of questions, you don't want to come off as uncooperative or rude, and therein lies the problem. Rather, try to redirect the conversation to your work ethic, your ability to get things done, and how you can do that. If the question seems out of the blue, you can ask politely why the question is being asked and assure the interviewer that your answer wouldn't have any impact on you being able to do the job, and that you're very good at keeping that part of your life separate from your work life. And if you're totally comfortable answering the question, go ahead and answer it. Being a self-advocate is about knowing what's best for you.

  • The Challenge: Being interrupted during an interview.

  • The Solution: Prepare short yet impactful statements.

When you go into a job interview, your accomplishments should speak for themselves. But of course, you will want to pitch those accomplishments in a way that makes the interviewers truly listen. That's why you need to create an impactful – yet short – statement to use when closing out your interview.

Why make it short? A 2017 study in the Journal of Social Sciences found that women were interrupted more often than men during job interviews, were asked more follow-up questions, and thus had less time to present a strong conclusion to their pitch for the job.

Yes, that's an inherent bias that puts you at a disadvantage. So turn it around, and try to frame that limitation as a way to make your statement even more succinct and powerful. Don't let them infer your value – state it very clearly. If you've got statistics to back it up, now is the time to throw them out there: "At my former company, the integrated system I designed saved over 30 percent in labor costs."

  • The Challenge: The tricky "what's your current salary?" question.

  • The Solution: Refocus the conversation.

Many employers will ask you what you're making right now, or what you were making at your previous job. This can put women in a tough spot, as some say it helps perpetuate the gender wage gap. Some states and municipalities have outlawed the question, but in most places, it's still perfectly legal to ask.

Fortunately, there are ways you can dodge the question, or respond in such a way that keeps you in a position of power over salary negotiations. Here are a few options for a response:

  • "I'm sure you have a budget in mind for this job. What's the budget for this job? I can let you know if we're on the same page."

  • "Well, I know what the typical salary range for a job like this is. Can we talk a bit about what's expected of me in this role?"

  • "I'd really like to focus on what I can do for you, not what I did for other employers. I'm looking for a challenging position that allows me to grow and contribute."

  • "I'm looking for a salary range of ______ to _____."

  • "I've always considered that information confidential. I'm looking for a salary range of ______."

If you are asked point-blank to answer with a number, never lie about it. Fudging the number can take you out of consideration for the job – or worse, can lead to termination after you already have it.

Learn more about common illegal interview questions and how to handle them in an interview here.

  • The Challenge: Figuring out what salary is being offered vs what salary you should get.

  • The Solution: Negotiate from a place of power and knowledge.

When you come into the job, they likely have a particular salary budget in mind. Look at job descriptions that match what you're applying for, then research the kind of salary provided for those jobs. If you have special training or education that relates to the field in some way, look at the higher end of the range.

Go into the interview with a short salary range in mind, with the research to back up what you're asking for. You could say something like, "My research shows that this position typically pays _____. What number did you have in mind?" If the number is too low, point out why: "Most who take a position like this have a bachelor's degree, but I have a master's degree and a year of experience. Given that, what does your new number look like?"

It's also easier to negotiate like this if you have other options. So never put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to interviewing; always keep looking until you sign a contract with your new company.

Learn more about how to negotiate a job offer and create an effective counter offer here.

Once You've Got the Job

If you advocated for yourself prior to receiving a job offer, you'll probably end up pretty happy with the offer you end up accepting. Your strong self-advocacy got you this far, but that doesn't mean it's time to put your self advocacy efforts to rest. Once you're employed, a slightly new approach to advocacy comes into play.

Keep an ongoing list of your contributions

Though you might do marvelous things that your coworkers and managers see happening every week, time is long and memories are short. By the time a performance review rolls around, what happened earlier during the year has likely been forgotten. Keep a running journal of your accomplishments, projects, responsibilities, and flashes of brilliance. You can go back and look at this list when you prepare to negotiate for a raise.

Find a mentor

"Finding a good mentor should be organic," says Olinda Hassan, a Partner in the Strategy & Innovation team at Twitter. "Find someone who gives quality advice and poses questions that make you think rather than someone who will tell how they think you should run your career or business. You may already have someone in your network like this. If you continue to seek their advice, make sure to do so cognizant of their schedule and energy so that they know you really respect their time and advice."

Don't allow yourself to be dismissed or ignored

Tales abound of female executives -- even CEOs -- being asked to do everything from take notes to fetch a cup of coffee. This kind of dismissal of a woman's place in the workplace isn't going down without a fight -- so it's important that you are ready to stand up for yourself when it happens. Simply saying "that's not in my job description" can remind someone that you are an equal.

The reaction might be an apology, or it might be the other end of the spectrum -- someone getting angry that you tried to "put them in their place." But keep in mind that you were hired to do a particular job, and that might not always jive with someone else's view of what your job should be. That's their issue, not yours.

Negotiate for a promotion or raise

When it's time to negotiate for a raise, promotion or other job opportunity within the company, being prepared for the meeting is half the battle. These tips can help you stay on track and get the money or position you deserve.

  • Update your job description. Begin by looking at your job description. How has your role expanded since you began working in your current position? What are you doing now that is not listed there in the description? Create a new job description that better reflects what you actually do on a day-to-day basis.

  • Investigate salary for your position. Now take a look at salary ranges for your position – not the one you were hired for, but the one that matches your new description. This will give you a good idea of the range in which to keep your negotiations.

  • Leverage the positives. Remember that ongoing list of contributions? Pull that out and take a look. Also look back at any positive comments, commendations, and accomplishments that came your way over the past year. When thinking about how to address those during negotiations, remember to frame them as what you can do for the company. "My successful project concerning _________ helped the company ______ ways this year" is an example of how to do this.

  • Keep your options open. When going into a meeting that discusses salary, promotions and your general future at the company, having other options is a boost to the confidence that can take your presentation from good to fantastic. So keep in touch with headhunters. Keep in friendly contact with recruiters. Have an idea of who's hiring someone of your talents. With those options in the back of your mind, you'll be much more ready to negotiate from a position of power.

Know Your Workplace Rights Under the Law

No matter how good of a self-advocate you are, sometimes you might find that it doesn't stop someone else from violating your rights in the workplace. The good news is that you can put your strong advocacy practice to work by taking the proper steps to right the wrong. Doing that effectively begins with knowing the law and how you can do your part to enforce it.

  • Brush up on discrimination and harassment laws. Understanding exactly what the law says and how to use it appropriately can help you take a stand when harassment happens. Start by learning about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws many types of discrimination. Then learn more about harassment so you can spot it as soon as it happens.

  • Put your foot down. When something happens that makes you uncomfortable, speak up immediately. Make it clear that you will tolerate only a professional working environment. This can be difficult to do, especially since you might be called "too sensitive" or "difficult." Don't let those labels dissuade you; they are simply an attempt to deflect blame for someone else's transgressions.

  • Understand the reporting procedure for your workplace. If talking to the person doesn't work, it's time to move it up the chain. Each company will have their own procedure about how to do this. It might mean going to an immediate manager, or going straight to human resources. Some companies have a team that handles only harassment and discrimination claims. Look over your employee handbook or company information to determine who to speak to at this point.

  • Know when to escalate. Sometimes management or human resources simply doesn't do the right thing. In that case, it's up to you to escalate the situation to someone higher up – or even take the issue to an attorney if it warrants criminal charges. Keep in mind that it is illegal for an employer to punish or discriminate against you in any way for reporting harassment.

  • Document everything. In any legal proceeding -- or even a case that HR chooses to keep "in house" -- documentation is your best friend. When communicating about the issue, do so via email or hard copy, so as to create a paper trail. Keep a private journal of incidents, reported with time and date, to back up the official communications. These steps will come in very handy if the situation ever goes to court.

  • Be clear. Sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace is never okay and should never be tolerated. Our guide to Handling Harassment and Discrimination at Work is an excellent place to get further information.

How to Spot & Avoid Self-Advocacy Roadblocks

Roadblocks to getting what you deserve at work can sometimes pop up with little to no warning. That's why it's so important to figure out what might happen and head those issues off at the pass. Let's take a look at some of the issues that might arise:

Vague answers to your questions

Description: This might as well be a non-answer. For instance, if you ask for more responsibility on a project, an employer might demur with "let's see how it goes."

Response: Ask for clear, actionable metrics your employer wants you to meet to earn more responsibility next time. This forces an answer by laying out expectations – and when you exceed them, it gives you more leverage when discussing promotions or raises.

Unclear next steps

Description: An employer might not want to be pinned down by expectations, and so might provide rather loose direction.

Response: In this case, create your own steps and approach your employer to sign off on them. Present it with something along the lines of, "Just to be clear and make sure there's no disappointment, let's take a look at these steps for the project. Do you see anything you'd like to change?"

Moving deadlines

Description: Ever been in a situation where a week-long deadline turned into "I need it yesterday" panic? Though this can happen to anyone as an occasional misunderstanding, if it happens more than once, it could be a red flag for a roadblock.

Response: When a project begins, and as the project moves from one phase to another, sit down with your manager to set firm deadlines. Setting firm expectations can help you avoid potentially negative comments when it's time for a performance review.

Vague feedback

Description: A 2016 study by Harvard Business Review found that when women were given feedback on their work performance, it was much less detailed and specific than what men received. When women receive less feedback on their actions that is specifically tied to business outcomes, it makes it more difficult to quantify what they bring to a company, and thus makes it more difficult to list the reasons why a raise or promotion is warranted.

Response: Fight this issue by asking for a meeting at the conclusion of a project, or at regular intervals through the year, to ask questions. "What in particular did I do best on this project?" is an example of a way to pin down management feedback.

Being pegged as difficult

Description: When you stand up for yourself in the workplace, or even initiate the desire for a salary negotiation, a curious thing might happen -- you might suddenly be seen as difficult, not easy to work with, or a "problem" for the company.

Response: That's why it's so important to get those clear answers and feedback, keep detailed notes and go into salary negotiations and performance reviews well-prepared with what you have contributed to the company. After seeing the results you can provide, management should start seeing you not as a liability, but as the truly worthy asset you are.

Self-Advocacy Advice from the Expert

Olinda Hassan is a Partner in the Strategy & Innovation team at Twitter, where she leads the customer experience strategy for Asia Pacific.

She has been at Twitter for over four years, a majority of which was spent as a Policy Manager working on developing global safety policies and collaborating with product and engineers to ensure safe enforcement mechanisms for users worldwide.

Why do you think women shy away from advocating for themselves in the workplace?

We are still not used to seeing women in high positions of power. Without seeing women in such positions in charge of leading major projects, it is naturally hard for us to think that we should even be advocating for ourselves. This is why inclusion matters so much.

This can be a hindrance when it comes to negotiating salaries or asking for a raise - since we are not used to seeing women in positions of power, or be the majority gender in many work scenarios, we often think what we have is good enough, versus that we can always ask for more, and it doesn't hurt us to ask.

We also come from a history of being told to play nice, and not come off as narcissistic if we say too much about ourselves. Men are the historical breadwinners -- they are assertive and confident, while women are nurturing, and thus, often submissive. When we point out wins to our colleagues or managers, we could be perceived as not being humble.

No one wants to come off as overly confident. We don't want to be judged. Therefore, what we usually do is the opposite -- we don't advocate for ourselves and gradually, our voices become irrelevant.

I know a colleague who tried to advocate herself for a promotion to her manager by pointing out concrete examples of projects delivered or when she went out of her way, and the manager, in a laugh, told her, "Well aren't you bragging now." While it may seem like a joke, this type of behavior can really set us back because our preparation to have these difficult conversations are not met seriously by those who have a control of our careers.

What are some ways women can build their confidence and become better at advocating?

Women are never taught to be boastful or promote themselves. In fact, more times than not we're reprimanded for being too big, taking up too much space. We're not being fair to others etc. Women are asked to do all the emotional labor in these situations: hold your tongue, congratulate your peers, don't draw too much attention to yourself.

You need to first realize that not only are these things holding you back, no man has to face them. It makes it a little easier to start standing up for yourself. The first few times will be shaky but learn from it: what could have you said better? Take deep breaths and speak evenly so they can really hear everything you say. If they cut you off, repeat yourself and continue to until they hear you. Once you do it a few times, the results will inspire you to keep it going.

If you're still not getting it, there are tons of books to read that are meant for women to shed their taught characteristics to succeed in business. Some off the top of my head are Lean In, Hardball for Women and Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office.

Anything else you'd like to add about self-advocacy?

The number one thing that helps me remember to promote myself is that: you can't always count on others to promote you. Sure, referrals and recommendations will get you far, but next to the man who is saying "I'm the best candidate for this job" your outside recommendations on past work won't stand up nearly as tall as you listing your own credentials and qualifications.

Additional Resources

  • AAUW: A grassroots organizations that works to empower women so they may improve their lives.

  • The Balance Careers: A good source for insightful articles and advice for making the most of your professional career.

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): The EEOC is the primary agency when it comes to enforcing federal anti-discrimination and harassment employment laws.

  • The Institute for Women's Policy Research: This organization's mission is to advance the status of women through the analysis and modification of public policy.

  • Lean In: As an international organization, Lean In helps women around the world achieve their goals. One offering in particular is Circles, which are monthly meetings where members can share advice and knowledge.

  • The Muse: If it deals with having the dream career, The Muse probably has an article, job posting, message board or course to help you.

  • National Organization for Women (NOW): A feminist organization, NOW works for positive societal change through the advocacy of equal rights, including lobby efforts for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to eliminate the gender pay gap.

  • National Women's Law Center (NWLC): The NWLC advocates on behalf of women and girls to bring equality in various contexts, including the workplace.

  • US Department of Labor (DOL): If it relates to promoting the working conditions, protecting rights and boosting opportunities of workers in the United States, the Department of Labor probably plays a part in it.

  • Women in the Workplace 2018: A powerful study that represents the most comprehensive examination of the status of women in the corporate sector of the workplace.

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