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Kickstarting your career: The art of negotiation

May 24th, 2012     by Vanessa Ciccone     Comments

The first murmurings of the women’s movement may seem like eons ago, and many think that it quelled the issue of gender inequality in the workforce. In actual fact, there remains a deplorable amount of inequality in North America’s workforce. Statistics Canada’s Publication Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report indicates that a woman still earns approximately 71 cents for every dollar a man earns.

For women of colour, wages tend to be even lower, earning roughly $4,000 less than white women and $7,000 less than men of colour. While women of colour are more likely to be in a low-income situation than white women, these disparities tend to shift when women in these minorities are born in Canada. The largest disparity seems to exist for first generation immigrants, and it tends to lessen significantly for the second and third generations.

These statistics speak volumes about societal norms, namely the oppression that permeates divisions of labour. Job candidates who have mobility issues or belong to the LGBT community also face a larger degree of adversity if they work at, or apply to, a company that lacks even a basic level of equal opportunity employment.

Othering that takes place in the workforce, for example in the form of transphobia, can be extremely powerful. Through the lens of meritocracy, we’re left to believe employees are getting fair wages and treatment, when this is often not the case. In other words, we’re left to believe that employees receive fair wages and treatment based on qualifications and hard work.

While the facts can be overwhelming, there are tools that help shrink the gender inequality gap and ensure labour is exchanged for fair wages.

Before doing any research on the company or industry, determine your required salary, which should take into account living costs and lifestyle. Many Canadian cities have implemented living wage policies, which ensure that all people who work for a municipality, or its contractors, are paid wages that enable them to meet at least basic needs. Living Wage Hamilton is a website that calculates the minimum wage a citizen requires in order to get by in that area. This is a great way to determine how to get by on your salary, but these calculations often fail to take savings, retirement, large purchases or investments into account. Living wage calculations often calculate the bare minimum people need to get by.

If you find yourself scraping by, then evaluate how your current or potential employer fulfills the following questions:

  • How will this opportunity contribute to my career growth?

  • Does the contract state the role as I understand it, or are vague terms used?

  • If applicable, does the company accommodate those with mobility issues?

  • Is the company tough on things like homophobic harassment in the workplace or gender-based harassment?

  • Can I get a sense of the overall company culture?

  • When will I be eligible for a raise?

  • Is there a set bonus structure?

  • Am I comfortable with the average income in the profession I have chosen?

  • Will I be fulfilled in this profession?

Starting at a small shop or a start-up is often a good idea. Although salaries may be lower here, the all-hands-on-deck atmosphere will usually pay for itself in terms of experience gained. It’s also important to be realistic about initial salary expectations. As a junior-level employee, you’re likely not going to be making a large sum right off the bat, but wages should generally increase as you gain skills and accumulate years in the workforce.

If there are times that wages do not increase, or climb at a snail’s pace, it’s important to think about who is usually left behind and why, or if opportunities and access are present at all. Who climbs the societal ladder is not random. Systemic racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and colonialism intersect and collide with one another in our day-to-day interactions—like job interviews—to create specific, exclusive ideals. With this in mind, it’s essential that we continue to identify and confront our own privilege and assumptions when it comes to access to education, career growth, and wages.

If you’re breaking into a new industry, check out industry comparables as a benchmark. Many industries have associations or governing bodies that release information on average wages. For example, the International Association of Business Communicators surveys its members and reports on salary data within the communications industry.

When delving into a company or organization’s financial structure, there are a couple useful websites to get you started. If the company is public, you can check out their annual report for financials. To figure out if a Canadian company is public, visit Sedar and search the database. If you compare their earnings year over year, you’ll see whether or not the company has grown and if there is a strong foundation for bonuses and generous wage increases.

Also figure out whether or not a company is unionized. If so, there is likely less room for salary negotiation, but a unionized job will likely offer a desirable benefits package. It may also mean a stable, secure job for years to come or an opportunity for employer-paid education.

In industries like social services, it’s not uncommon to be offered employment with an hourly wage. If working with this structure, inquire within your company about benefits packages and salaries for full time employees and make it known that this is your eventual goal. This not only shows initiative, it will also lead you to more of a stable income structure in the future.

Apart from research, if you have the opportunity to talk to or be mentored by someone in your industry, take it. Many established professionals are open to mentoring new grads, and there is often no better way to hear about great jobs. There is a good chance that an industry veteran will know the reputations of the companies in their field, i.e. who treats employees well and gives reasonable benchmark salaries.

No mentor in the picture? No problem. When the inevitable salary question comes up in the interview, you’ll have an idea of the salary range for the position because of all the research you did…right? When you give an overview of your work experience and skills, highlight your accomplishments and make sure to bring up how you contributed to your previous job’s bottom line, morale, and any other contribution you made. What was their return on investment in hiring you? Maybe you had a connection that brought in some new business or introduced a more efficient way of doing things. If you won awards (even if internal), received a raise ahead of schedule, or a performance bonus, mention it.

One of the worst things you can do at a job or in an interview is be overly modest. Women are especially conditioned (note: I said conditioned, not hard-wired) to skirt over their accomplishments because it feels like bragging. Modesty may also rear its head as a function of race during these conversations, which is why it’s so important to continually recognize, acknowledge, and deconstruct the intersectional nature of oppression.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink does a great job of outlining the subconscious prejudice that many possess. Those who have had a privileged upbringing, often white middle or upper class youth, have been conditioned to associate themselves with all things “good” and “smart”. For individuals outside of this socioeconomic prototype, the association usually is much less favourable. The fact that these thoughts and ideas operate outside of our awareness makes them even more powerful (and concerning).

At the end of the day, how is your current or future employer supposed to know the impact you’ve made unless you bring it to their attention?

If the first offer on the table seems low, counter with a higher suggestion and expect them to meet you halfway. Your suggestion should be informed by the research you did and the industry you’re interviewing in.

If it’s not possible to negotiate a higher salary, consider the entire compensation package. Are you immediately eligible for full benefits? Does the company have profit sharing or a set bonus structure? Is there a program for matching RRSP contributions or a pension plan? They may be willing to throw in an extra week of vacation, or perhaps you can negotiate a review and potential raise ahead of schedule. If you do negotiate other benefits or perks, make sure to have them stated in your employment contract.

LinkedIn is another useful resource for researching companies. Looking for a job, especially a first job, can be a bit of a scramble – you graduate, realize you’re up to your ears in student loans and start applying to anyone who is hiring. Establishing a strong professional network ahead of time can save you some of this angst. With LinkedIn, not only can you find hiring managers online and contact them directly, you can also build your own network with like-minded colleagues.

When you actually get the job, make sure to keep a journal of your accomplishments so that the next time the need comes up for an interview, you’re already prepared with a list of your new skills. While the process may seem daunting at first, the sooner you start flexing the negotiation muscle, the easier it will get.

While ableism, racism, sexism and transphobia are a part of many job-seekers’ lived experiences, remember that we all have a right to a livable wage, regardless of the job being sought. Aim for a salary you’re financially comfortable with, do your research and continue to build your network of allies. Your allies include co-workers too, as improving job conditions and salaries/wage grievances is often a collective endeavor.

The fight for gender equality rages on.


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