How to Navigate Negotiations as a Woman in Tech

Written by Madeline Hester
Published on Jun. 08, 2020
How to Navigate Negotiations as a Woman in Tech
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If you see a woman talking to herself in the mirror, don’t judge her: she might be preparing to ask for a higher salary or a promotion.

Statistics show that negotiating is more uncomfortable for women than men. Men are four times more likely to negotiate than women, and 20 percent of women say they never negotiate at all, according to the book, “Women Don’t Ask” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

The first step to a successful negotiation is knowing what you want, and sometimes that comes from realizing what you don’t have. 

Before Avery Spiel was a senior software engineer at Virta Health, she was the founding engineer at another company. During a meeting, she noticed that only the male engineers had senior titles. Even though she had more experience and education on paper, Spiel had to explain why she, too, was qualified for a senior title. Seeing what she could (and should) have was what motivated her to ask for, and then accept, a better title — and a higher salary.

Once you know what you want, preparation and research are key. In the negotiation room, nobody is a mindreader. Asking a friend to role-play the discussion, enlisting a mentor for feedback or even practicing in the mirror are great ways to clarify wants and build confidence. Remember, most higher-ups want to reward talented employees, but sometimes they won’t do anything unless they’re asked.


Nicole McMullin
Product Manager • Lattice

Four years ago, McMullin transitioned from sales into a product role without product experience. During an interview at a previous company, she was able to negotiate why her lack of experience in the desired field was actually a positive since she could bring fresh ideas and outsider insight. Today, as a product manager at people management software company Lattice, McMullin said her current pre-negotiation strategy is to overprepare with facts and data in order to feel confident before going into any room. 


How did you ask for what you wanted and build a case for why you deserved it? 

Over the years, I’ve become more skilled in articulating what it is that I actually want. In tech, when you learn resources are scarce and time is limited, you become more purposeful in your interactions with almost everyone. 

Four years ago, I made the transition from sales into product management. As I started to learn more about careers in product, I knew I could be successful given my sales experience, deep understanding of the customer and analytical knowledge from my investing background. 

There were multiple parties I had to convince to let me take on that challenge, such as a product team and my current sales manager. One of the things that worked for me early on was to be upfront with my current sales manager on my interest in product. I assured him that I would continue to operate as a top performer and continue to keep him in the loop with my explorations so that nothing was a surprise. This was huge in solidifying our trust for one another. 

Clarifying the ask and building a case also meant researching on my own the potential possibilities for this role switch. Had others done this before me? What level would this role be? Who would I need to speak with internally? I had done a lot of research beforehand to relieve as much of the burden here from those I was asking. From there, I had to step out of my comfort zone and bluntly articulate why I believed I could provide significant value to the product team. Looking back now, I realize this difficult career navigation was nothing more than a negotiation. 


What has been the most effective strategy youve used in negotiations, and why? 

I use more of a pre-negotiation strategy. I overprepare with data and facts knowing that I may not ever reference them within the negotiation. Why? The exercise itself in gathering data points will get you comfortable with talking about what it is you’re negotiating and give you confidence and conviction in approaching your ask. 

Don’t be afraid to run ideas by your peers, mentors or friends. For example, if you’re negotiating compensation, use your network to gather data on compensation ranges. If you don’t understand something about your offer, call up an old mentor. 

Don’t be afraid to run ideas by your peers, mentors or friends.


What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in a negotiation, and how did you overcome it? 

Sometimes the greatest challenge about a negotiation is recognizing that you’re in the midst of one. To this day, I still remember my interview for an account executive role in tech sales. I’d studied like hell, crushed the demo portion and went through three in-person interviews before the hiring manager said to me, “So you’ve never actually done sales before?” I froze. Truthfully, I answered, “No, I haven’t.” But I quickly realized I was in the middle of a negotiation situation where I was simply required to translate the roles and responsibilities of this role to similar responsibilities that I had in past experiences. Because I had done the work to understand his goals and the company’s goals extremely well, I was even able to articulate why I believed my skills to be more valuable than someone with direct sales experience. 


Sarah Sciortino
Enterprise Customer Account Executive • Khoros

When negotiating with potential clients in her sales role at customer engagement company Khoros, Sciortino starts by empathizing with the buyer. Forming meaningful relationships and coming from a place of understanding make it harder for customers to reject proposals outright, she said. Instead, potential customers could be evangelizing your performance when they need final approval from their higher-ups.


How did you ask for what you wanted and build a case for why you deserved it? 

You can’t get what you want unless you ask for it. That is something that I really struggled with early on in my career. Before moving into sales, I held a role on Khoros’ customer success team working with some of our largest customers. I knew when I wanted to move into sales that coming from customer success could either be seen as a negative (not enough sales experience) or a positive (relentless focus on creating positive outcomes for our customers). When an inside sales role opened up at the enterprise level, I was able to articulate how my proven track record in customer success could make a big impact on the bottom line for Khoros. I’ve been in the sales role for over two years now and ultimately, the transition has made a positive impact on our business.


What has been the most effective strategy youve used in negotiations, and why?

I approach all of my negotiations with empathy for the buyer and a focus on what will ultimately make them successful on our platform. When you can develop meaningful relationships with your customers and understand their broader success criteria, it’s a lot easier to overcome objections around price, functionality gaps, etc. It also creates champions for you inside the customer’s organization. There is so much selling and negotiation that takes place when you’re not in the room. It’s critical to develop those relationships with your catalysts so that once you hang up the phone, you have people evangelizing on your behalf. That level of advocacy tends to be more effective. If the software evaluation is a true partnership between you and the buyer, you are set up for success.

There is so much selling and negotiation that takes place when you’re not in the room.


What has been the greatest challenge you've faced in a negotiation, and how did you overcome it?

When selling at the enterprise level in the space Khoros is in, there is not only a lot of competition, but also there are affinities to alternate platforms that exist in other parts of a customer’s business. I’ve found this to be the biggest challenge and also the greatest area of opportunity. The way to overcome this is by focusing on providing an excellent customer experience at every opportunity, whether you’re in an active sales cycle or not. Our customers want to do business with companies that make the day-to-day experience easy and provide the partnership to help them achieve their goals. 


Avery Spiel
Senior Software Engineer • Virta Health

Before landing her engineering job at healthtech company Virta Health, Spiel was caught off guard when her former engineering team restructured the career ladder without her input. Even though she had more experience than her new higher-ups, she had to negotiate for a new title and the salary that came with it. Hiring a career coach and practicing negotiation with friends helped her prepare. 


How did you ask for what you wanted and build a case for why you deserved it? 

Knowing what you want is often even harder than asking for what you want. I was in an odd situation at a previous company where I had a job title of “founding engineer” for six years. In the background, the engineering team had moved to using a career ladder without me realizing it. It came to light when we put together a page of the team for recruiting purposes that included everyone’s current titles. Skimming through, I realized that none of the women had the title “senior engineer” despite all of us having longer tenure, more tech lead contributions and more education than the men, who all had senior titles. That really catalyzed what I wanted and it made it easy for me to advocate for myself and the other women.

At that point, I started working with a career coach who helped me better understand how to uncover the opportunities around me and build cases for those opportunities. The value in working with a career coach was that she has a window into the thousands of different ways a career can unfold. We started by looking at the ladder document my company had put together as well as a few other public ladder documents that similar companies were using. This gave me a skeleton to work from when thinking about what opportunities I was interested in pursuing. It gave me a set of concrete bullet points I used as headlines to demonstrate skills I was exhibiting and not getting credit for.

In the end, I got the title change as well as a compensation change that I’d been missing out on for at least three of those years. It was a good lesson that you don’t just get granted things because you merit them. You also have to know to ask and dare to ask.


What has been the most effective strategy youve used in negotiations, and why?

Before going into a negotiation, it’s important to do the legwork. You need to do the homework on baselines and the average ranges you have to play with. You also need to look inward and identify the most important things to you that you would not give up. The combination of market realities and your needs will build an internally consistent narrative for your negotiation story and will make it a lot easier for you to stay focused while negotiating.

The next step is to practice. I always start out pretending to negotiate for someone else. For some reason, it’s easier to find the words when you don’t feel like you’re asking for yourself. Once I have a reasonable script from that, I sub myself in.

Salary and stock options aren’t the only thing that are on the negotiating table. 


What has been the greatest challenge youve faced in a negotiation, and how did you overcome it?

When I was joining Virta, I was in the middle of actively trying for a baby. I wasn’t pregnant yet, but I wanted assurances that I would be able to take the kind of maternity leave I wanted. It’s a very weird topic to broach in a negotiation because it puts you at risk for discrimination or a revoked offer letter.

In this case, I had a friend who was already at the company and I was able to get some intel before going into negotiations about company attitudes toward parents and leave-taking. Because there were many cases of parents being able to take extended leaves, I felt more comfortable bringing the subject up with the recruiter. Soon after joining the company, I was able to get pregnant and I’m really glad I put the time in up front discussing leave before joining.

It’s also a good reminder that salary and stock options aren’t the only thing that are on the negotiating table. 


Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies.

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