Negotiating as a Woman of Color
Negotiating should be seen as a tool to overcome barriers and solve problems; however, many women of color (WOC) view it as a privilege and often overlook the leverage they have available to them. What can WOC do if they feel cornered into saying yes or feel guilty saying no when what’s being asked of them is not in their best interest? Based on the authors’ respective work in women’s leadership development, including more than 1,000 interviews with professional and executive WOC, an upcoming book, and two decades of research on gender and negotiation, they explore how negotiation tools could help WOC have more agency and be more selective in what they accept — and what they push back on — at work.
Negotiating on your own behalf is hard, and opportunities to do so aren’t always obvious, especially if you’re not accustomed to feeling empowered. It can also be highly emotional, and you may not even know what your ideal outcome is.
Layered on top of these challenges is an American culture that often discourages women — especially women of color (WOC) — from self-advocating, particularly when it comes to grasping greater power and resources or saying no to undervalued work. In our experience teaching, interviewing, and working with female managers and executives, we commonly hear WOC report feeling an instinct to stay silent and be grateful for what they have. They also often report a reasonable fear of backlash if they strive beyond others’ expectations or push back on additional workplace asks.
Negotiating should be seen as a tool to overcome barriers and solve problems; however, many WOC view it as a privilege and often overlook the leverage they have available to them. What can WOC do if they feel cornered into saying yes or feel guilty saying no when what’s being asked of them is not in their best interest? Based on our respective work in women’s leadership development, including more than 1,000 interviews with professional and executive WOC, an upcoming book, and two decades of research on gender and negotiation, we explore how negotiation tools could help WOC have more agency and be more selective in what they accept — and what they push back on — at work.
Why WOC Don’t Negotiate
The WOC we’ve interviewed did not feel encouraged to negotiate. Many described being coached by others to “go along to get along” for various reasons. Black women found that revealing ambitious intentions and a healthy self-esteem caused them to be misinterpreted as angry, difficult, or aggressive. Many Asian cultures teach a reverence for authority that creates expectations with themselves and others that they should conform. Many immigrant Latinas are cautioned based on family experience not to rock the boat and are taught to keep their heads down.
When these women advance through corporate America, they have few negotiation models tailored toward the unique spaces they occupy. When interviewing WOC, we found that the word “negotiation” often connoted formal, contractual dealmaking. Examples of negotiation that came to mind for these women included job offers or work with clients. This stereotype of negotiation as formal bargaining is typically associated with white male norms. It also overshadows everyday opportunities for WOC to get what they need and want at work.
WOC also shared that they worry that advice often offered to white women, such as “lean in” or “just say no,” doesn’t suit their needs. While white women continue to face barriers at the negotiation table, they may be afforded a broader toolkit of strategies than WOC. Ours and others’ research on intersectional invisibility shows that WOC still contend with standing out while also being marginalized. Many receive the message that they’re the “exception,” implicitly heightening expectations that they conform and don’t draw further attention to themselves. The women we met weren’t seeing everyday negotiation opportunities in interactions with others around the use of their time, their value, or the spaces they occupy.
We want to model and discuss what WOC might do when asked to take on additional tasks and roles at work — and highlight that there are often choices beyond saying yes or no.
Let’s investigate the social and professional positions of women in four different scenarios inspired by our respective research and experience. WOC may find themselves feeling “trapped” in these circumstances, when embracing a negotiation approach could result in better outcomes for the individual WOC, those around her, and her company at large. Our research in the laboratory and field has shown that women can avoid backlash if they have mutually beneficial options and ideas to propose.
The Job-Within-Your-Full-Time Job Trap
WOC are often asked to take on responsibilities outside the ones they’re hired for. The “job within the job” — especially around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) tasks — is a growing challenge for many of the women we interviewed.
Isabel* is a high-performing marketing manager who has risen rapidly in the advertising field. She is known for speaking her mind, especially when it comes to selling products to Black and Brown markets. As one of the only client-facing people of color in her agency, Isabel has become the voice for diverse customers.
In addition to her regular job duties, she found herself assuming the company’s expanding informal DE&I roles. Eventually, one senior leader asked Isabel to take on the DE&I leader role for the San Francisco office. The role itself was very loosely defined and had an unclear job description. Isabel appreciated the way leadership publicly valued her opinions on DE&I questions and was initially excited about the prospect; however, as the conversation progressed, she realized that the opportunity felt like additional work on top of her more than full-time marketing role.
Isabel shared her ambivalence about the position with a close friend, who asked, “Where is the upside?” Isabel explained that she actually enjoys DE&I work, finds it to be personally meaningful, and is very good at it. But the work is not only time consuming, it takes a toll on her well-being. She wondered how much of a difference in her company’s culture she could make in the new role and whether it was sustainable for her to add more to her already full plate. And would this work even be rewarded, especially if it distracted her from her marketing responsibilities and the role she was hired and paid to do?
Isabel could negotiate to define the role she wants to play.
If she’s interested in the role, Isabel can put a value on the extra DE&I work as a real addition to her current job. One way to do this would be to negotiate with her supervisor about how to prioritize all of her current responsibilities, such as looking for ways to temporarily hand off or back-burner some of her work as she transitions into the new DE&I role.
Isabel might also start a conversation about her time in both roles and the potential implications for her advancement trajectory. While the work would be personally meaningful, it’s not the job she was hired to do, and it may not serve her to take her eye off the ball of her marketing strategy. She might also want to explore whether the DE&I role could offer her opportunities to increase her visibility with leadership and negotiate for opportunities that would enhance the visibility of her personal contributions, along with the company’s commitment to DE&I.
If the negotiation process reveals that the DE&I work isn’t actually highly valued in her firm (e.g., they’re unwilling to reprioritize her workload or give the work visibility), then she should question whether she’s the right — or the only — person for the job. The position should help Isabel and her company. If the role is poorly defined and not seen as valuable by leaders, she may want to pass. If she feels the risks of outright saying no are too high, she could use a “yes, and” strategy and negotiate for clear boundaries and expectations around the role in order to avoid mission creep.
The Death-by-a-Thousand-Paper-Cuts Trap
Many of the women we met are among very few WOC in their organizations. As a result, much of the mentoring, sponsoring, and even barrier-breaking responsibility falls on them.
Maria was hired three years ago and has at least 10 peers at her mid-management level. Maria finds herself constantly being asked to schedule Zoom calls, send calendar invites, record meetings, and even send out notes afterward. She is one of the few women — and the only WOC — in her department. While she values pitching in for the greater good of the company, she realizes that she’s expected to take on far more administrative duties than others.
Maria wants to give back some of these tasks or find a way to share them among the team.
Maria could negotiate for shared responsibility.
It’s hard to push back on tasks like this, so Maria may want to schedule a peer meeting to convince her colleagues to share in this work. Maria is not uniquely qualified for this role — there are others who could perform the tasks just as well. She could explain that it’s a public good and suggest a rotation or work-share approach since the tasks benefit the entire department.
Once she has buy-in from her peers, the group could propose a new plan to management as a collective. This approach requires coalition-building, working with others to shift the narrative to shared responsibility and shared value.
The Lonely-Only Trap
Maya was recently promoted to her company’s C-suite as its new chief strategy officer. Before the promotion, she made mentorship a priority. Now, six months into her new role, she finds herself overwhelmed by the number of women asking to meet with her for coaching and advice. She is the only woman and the only WOC in the C-suite and sees the development of diverse talent as a core strategic objective. Nevertheless, she fears that this ballooning responsibility is starting to edge out other work, mind space, and time she needs to devote to broader strategic initiatives.
She doesn’t want to say no to those seeking her advice, or complain that mentees are taking up too much of her time. In fact, she really enjoys this part of her new role. Maya wants to be a role model and mentor junior talent without undermining her larger leadership role.
Maya can negotiate to turn individual work into organizational work.
This common type of invisible work often falls on path-breaking WOC and came up in our interviews frequently.
Maya could explore possibilities to transform her individual and informal mentor role into a formal position within the company. For instance, she could use data on all the requests she receives as evidence for the need of a mentorship program, which she could help develop in concert with talent and human resources teams.
She could argue for making strong mentorship for diverse talent management a competitive advantage for her company. By surfacing this invisible work, she could help others see its hidden value and open doors to conversations about the best use of both the company’s and individual contributors’ time.
The When-Your-Passion-Isn’t-Their-Passion Trap
Dara was on the partner track at her firm. As the only Black woman in a senior role, she found herself tasked with greater DE&I activities. One of the partners even asked her to help shape the firm’s inclusion strategy.
After taking a few months to meet with employees, Dara came back with a detailed strategy and execution plan. She presented her recommendations to the leadership team and asked if she could step into a larger, more permanent DE&I leadership role.
Leadership told her that DE&I could be her “minor, not major” and that she was too close to the partner process to risk getting sidetracked by a staff role.
Dara can negotiate to test the market.
Dara’s leadership gave her a clear signal of how they value her DE&I contributions relative to her other work. Without negotiating, she could follow their advice and push aside the DE&I work to stay focused on the path to partner.
It may serve Dara to negotiate on two fronts: inside her firm and externally with other companies.
Inside her company, Dara could propose a trial to demonstrate the value of her proposal. She could ask to occupy the position for a short-term stint (90 days or fewer). She could ask for a pilot project and determine the criteria by which it could be judged. Once in the role, she could try to shape the new initiative and a position for herself within it.
Alternatively, she could reject the professional advice she has been given and accept the professional consequences of doing the DE&I work that she finds personally meaningful and important. Dara could also do something more unexpected and ask to come off the partner track altogether. If the role is pivotally important and if Dara is questioning her overall fit within the company and its commitment to DE&I, she may benefit from extending her runway to collect more information.
At the same time, Dara could start exploring what other firms offer by testing her value in the external marketplace. Leaders are sometimes slow to recognize the full value of their internal talent until the market gives them a different signal. She could even use her outside offer to negotiate for what she needs at her current firm.
Having options can strengthen your negotiation position and make you braver about how hard you negotiate. This situation made Dara question how committed the firm was to DE&I and prompted her to think about whether she was in the right place or valued in the ways she should be. Pay attention to these signals in your own professional journey.
The Real Opportunity
Negotiation is a tool for asking for what you want and deserve, bending norms to break open new paths, and shaping new ways of working. Negotiation is not about playing hardball. It’s about framing “asks” as opportunities for negotiation and getting creative with options.
Negotiating helps both you and your company. Clarifying expectations for yourself and asking for what you need to be successful helps bring greater clarity about what the company needs and the best way to deploy resources and attention.
When you’re asked to do something and don’t feel you know what you want yet, it’s a good idea to pause. Take the time to gather your thoughts and any relevant information before resuming the discussion. Agency matters. You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want. If you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do or don’t get an answer you like, ask for another meeting and come back with more creative ideas. Sometimes, the outcome of a negotiation is more negotiation.
Here are some powerful negotiation statements you may want to keep handy:
- “Yes, I can do that, but what would I give up?”
- “I will accept this role, but next year, I want to sit on the regional review committee.”
- “I have a rule: I never say ‘yes’ to anything in the moment. I always think about it.”
- “I could use your help in understanding how this would make sense for me given my other priorities.”
- “If I lead the diversity initiative, how will it be measured for my year-end reviews?”
- “How about I take the role for 90 days and then we revisit it?”
Silence is also powerful, as it prompts others to share more.
If there was ever a time for WOC to negotiate, the moment is now. There’s more power available to them in companies than ever before. As they’re asked and inspired to do more strategic, emotional, and professional work, they must dedicate more effort to negotiating for themselves and for the generations of leaders to follow. They can use negotiation to reset the tables and set new expectations for their growing roles in organizations.
* All names used in the article have been changed.