Get the raise you deserve

Shelley Jensen-Decker. Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Shelley Jensen-Decker. Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Sometimes Jenny Keil takes an old Social Security statement to class and waves it around. “Take a look at that income level,” she tells her students. “Zero.”

Keil, an associate professor of management and economics at Hamline University, spent almost a decade out of the workforce while raising three kids. She earned a master’s and a doctorate while she was out, allowing her to re-enter at a professional level, but she knows that she’ll never make up those lost wages—and she knows that in some ways she has limited her lifetime earning potential.

“I could very accurately predict what I’ll make for the rest of my career,” said Keil. “But I knew we wanted a family and there was no way I could see a way that we could both work the way my husband was working.”

Keil contrasts her situation with the approach of some of her students, who are ideologically opposed to combining a career and childrearing on any level. “There’s these women, brand new to the labor market, just getting out of college, [and they say] ‘I’m not going to let somebody else raise my children.’”

To which Keil responds: “They’re adorable, but I don’t need to change every diaper. I think there are ways to combine it.”

Her fear is that young women don’t fully understand how much they’re giving up by leaving the workforce for an extended time. Not only are they losing the income for those years they’re out, they’re losing future income, since Social Security payments are based on lifetime earnings. This is one reason why women’s median income from pensions is less than half that for men and their median income from Social Security is about three-quarters of men’s.

There’s also a domino effect, said Keil, who is organizing a book on this very topic for the St. Paul-based Center for Economic Progress. Salary increases are generally based on how much you made previously (e.g., a raise of four percent), so interrupting a career path means disrupting that growth curve. Other reasons why women find themselves earning less than they’re worth, year after year, according to Keil: their salary expectations are lower; they tend to be risk-averse and choose a secure wage over one that’s potentially higher but less stable; employers (often men) tend to overestimate the amount of skill deterioration that takes place while an employee is out of the labor force; and women don’t ask as often or as aggressively as men do for salary increases.

Both sides (businesses and women employees) need to improve their approach, said Keil. Companies should offer more woman-friendly options and women should beef up their negotiating skills—in other words, learn how to ask for a raise.

Many people cringe at the thought. But when you consider the alternative—earning less than you’re worth—along with the other obstacles arrayed against the possibility of earning a fair wage, learning how to negotiate seems like a useful thing to do.

You can do it

Shelley Jensen-Decker, a career services manager with WomenVenture, teaches women about negotiation.

One of her cardinal rules: show, don’t tell.

“Probably one of the biggest things we try to drive home is that you need to talk about your accomplishments and what you’ve done for the organization,” Jensen-Decker said. “That’s hard to do, particularly for women. The reality is we need to tell people what we’re doing and what we want.”

Because it’s hard to remember everything, Jensen-Decker suggests keeping a file of all letters, emails and even verbal feedback.

The most common mistakes women make are not talking about what they’ve accomplished and not making realistic requests. “You need to do your homework and know what the market will bear,” she explained. “Someone came to me [for a raise] and she’d done her research, but the points of comparison she used were not comparable. There was no way that I could meet that. In fact, the salary [she asked for] was more than mine.”

In other words, don’t compare your salary to that of someone doing a similar job in New York City or someone doing the same work at a much larger company. (See sidebar for salary websites.)

Jensen-Decker also suggested taking into account your employer’s situation. “Sometimes people’s hands are tied—they’re working within a certain structure and there’s nothing they can do. And the economy is a factor. If the economy is down, all raises might be off.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a raise in tough times, but again, be realistic, said Jensen-Decker. “Talk about your accomplishments, especially if you helped the bottom line, and preface it with saying, ‘I know times aren’t good, but here’s what I’d like—x percent—and if we can’t do it now, can we talk about it in three months?’ And there are other things to negotiate for: vacation, flex time, benefits.”

Even if your employer beats you to the punch at the annual review by announcing there will be no raises, you can still speak up, said Jensen-Decker. “You might have to accept it, but you can also have your voice and say ‘I’m sorry to hear that, because I wanted to outline my accomplishments and I felt that I deserved a raise of x percent. Sitting back and saying nothing doesn’t help you either.”

Steps to Success

1. Make sure that you deserve it. Be confident, make a list of your accomplishments and let someone (not a coworker) look over the list.

2. Prepare your strategy. Know industry standards, figure out exactly what you want (or will take as Plan B) and predict your boss’s objections.

3. Know when to strike (after you’ve had a stunning success, when you’ve been given more responsibility or during your review).

4. Read your boss.

5. Avoid stupid mistakes, like saying why you need the money, being unreasonable or unprofessional, demanding to be paid as much as a colleague or threatening to leave (unless you really want to).

6. Go in and ask for the raise—dress nice, be prepared for objections, bring a copy of your list of accomplishments and ask for more than you want but nothing ridiculous.


Jenny Keil

“I was hired at Hamline in the fall of 1999, making $32,000. It never occurred to me to negotiate. The next year a tenure track job came up. I started doing some research and realized I was underpaid. I applied for [the position] and got it, and I sat down to negotiate with the dean. [He made] a good offer, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had done my homework and I said ‘I was thinking that [ten percent more] was much more appropriate.’ And he gave it to me. So do your homework. It’s like a 10 percent raise, right off the bat. And that makes a difference because each year 10 percent of my salary Hamline pays into my retirement.”

“I didn’t just go in with a number in my head, I went in with actual data [on paper]. Then you’ve got something you can make a copy of and leave with the person you’re interviewing, in case they want to go mull it over. I wouldn’t say go in with a book, but one page with bulleted points.”

Abby Karels

Karels worked at a Fortune 500 company in Minneapolis as a corporate conference specialist for two and a half years.

“About six months in, I was really enjoying the job, and I had a conversation about money with a coworker. We were responsible for the same things: he’d do the hands-on [audio-visual] part and I’d do the negotiation and designed the website and wrote brochures.

“[Talking about money is] pretty taboo to do, and I did find out that he was making about $8,000 more than I was. I had a comfortable relationship with my manager at the time, so two months later at my review I said I’d done some research and believed I wasn’t being fairly compensated.

“I was told that to get a raise, they would have to rewrite the job description and see if the pay grade could be raised…it would be a pretty lengthy process. He said the only reason he answered me nicely was because he considered himself a friend of mine, but that if I’d ever brought it up with another manager, my hand would really be slapped. He didn’t say why.”

Shelley Jensen-Decker

“A job I had quite a long time ago had a salary structure that was lower than I’d hoped and when I was offered the job I asked if we could talk about it in six months. This organization wasn’t open to it in any way… [but] it was good experience; I don’t regret [working there]. I stayed a couple years. You have to weigh what the job offers you.”

Statistics and guidelines




How does your salary stack up?



• (The Chronicle of Higher Education breaks down academic salaries by state, school and rank.)

• There are also some industry specific sites that provide salary information.

Read all about it

• Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, by Peggy Klaus

• Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, by Lois Frankel

• Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever