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Negotiating Around Gender Pay Gaps–An International Perspective


The September meeting of the IACC featured seasoned career coaches from around the world–we had speakers from Zimbabwe, Spain, Japan, the UK, and the USA. It was an exhilarating hour in which two things stood out: having access to an international network of like-minded professionals is invaluable, especially when it comes to guiding an offer negotiation. And wow, does this world still have some work to do around systemic gender-based pay gaps! Do you have a client considering an out-of-country move? Do you have a business with employees in multiple countries? Are you coaching people far outside your own locale? Read on: there’s a lot of wisdom from Jo Abbot of Horizons Coaching, Natalia Domingo of N.D. Coaching, Sonia Jackson of Ikigai Executive Coaching, and Laura Leach of Meredith Consulting.


The outlook from Harare, Zimbabwe:


Jo Abbot: South Africa is the economic engine of southern Africa; neighboring Zimbabwe has a much smaller population and fewer economic opportunities despite its generally high education level. Since its economic collapse in the early 2000s, Zimbabwe has been plagued by “brain drain” with many clients seeking international opportunities, especially in the United States, UK, and South Africa. Lower-level jobs in Zimbabwe are extremely competitive, but at middle and higher levels it is really important to negotiate as that’s where we see the skills shortages.


The outlook for women? Abbot estimates Zimbabwe is “Four decades behind the US” in closing the equity gap, both in terms of salaries and overall viability for positions. “In Zimbabwe, it’s completely legal and not uncommon for hiring managers to say ‘I’m looking for a man, about 35 years old.’ You can openly specify gender and age.” Women can be viewed with caution by employers because they assume they will present problems by going on maternity leave, wanting more flexibility, or may not be “committed” to the working hours and culture. And unlike the United States, where it’s not permissible for hiring managers or recruiters to ask candidates to disclose their prior compensation, “Here in Zimbabwe, an employer will often ask for your last payslip to prove what you were earning and for them to use as a base for their offer to you.”

Abbot coaches her clients to look at the big picture, including their family context. “Maybe you have great healthcare coverage through your spouse. If you do, you can consider keeping that, and essentially parlay it into a higher-cash compensation package.” Also, “Scarce commodities count. For some, it’s worth negotiating a compensation package that includes, for example, a car and a fuel allowance or a US dollar linked medical aid scheme.


Her overall advice? “Know your worth but keep things in perspective.” Also, for clients seeking jobs in countries like Zimbabwe where the local currency isn’t stable, negotiating for a salary fixed in US dollars or Euros will work in the job seeker’s favor.


The outlook from Tokyo, Japan:


Sonia Jackson: The Japanese concept of “Ikigai” is a bit like the French “raison d’etre;” it refers to inhabiting a “sweet spot” of things that give your life meaning. It’s the spirit of “rightness and purpose” in what you do. Where passion, meets skills, meets profession. Japan has the world’s third most powerful economy, and whilst the pandemic has had its toll, there is a moment of growth right now so it is “time to negotiate.” Salaries are on the rise in tech, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, media, and many other sectors. Japanese work culture is intense, with expectations of very long hours – and deal-making often moves into the early hours of the morning.


Gender inequity in Japan is significant, though the likely winner of the next election is more progressive and will attempt to address this. “Women do more than 75% of all unpaid work and caregiving.” But women in upper-tier positions are severely underrepresented and underpaid. Maternity leave often finds women excluded from the ‘long hour’ roles and pushed into a lower salary tier on return.


In Japan, coaching largely revolves around what Jackson calls “self-belief building” and steering clients into their ideal roles, rather than allowing them to settle on any role that pays. Clients typically need reminding of their own skills and values. There is an innate fear of negotiating, out of a belief the offer will be rescinded if they try to advocate for better terms. And it’s true that in general Japanese companies do not have as much of a “negotiation culture” as some countries; foreign companies with a presence in Japan are more likely to expect negotiation. Manners and propriety are a huge part of Japanese business culture. For women in particular, “It is important to negotiate–with politeness.”

She does see some of this starting to shift. “Women are speaking out, breaking out, and making a change. Progressive Japanese and foreign companies are driving this; it will be some time before the behemoth Japanese companies make changes. Hiring practices are rooted in stereotypes so women lack opportunities. There is a woman standing for Prime Minister, a woman Mayor of Tokyo, a woman headed up to the 2020 Olympics. So change is afoot. But it has to come from the job-seekers too. This is pretty standard across Asia with the exception of Singapore and Hong Kong which are ahead of the curve with more women on Boards than the rest of Asia.”

Jackson’s advice? “Buy time. Don’t act impulsively. Do your research. Negotiate, not just salary but hiring bonus, benefits, ancillaries–and don’t be afraid of 2-3 rounds.”


The outlook from Barcelona, Spain:


Natalia Domingo: Barcelona is a tech hub, but overall, Spain is behind the curve compared to northern neighbors in the EU–salaries are lower across the board than in Germany or the UK or France. It’s rare for executives to migrate into Spain unless they are with a multinational entity–it’s more common for people to leave Spain for other countries where salaries are higher. Barcelona is a unique case even within Spain because of language issues, as Barcelona is Catalan-speaking. “Some great companies, foreign investors, and candidates are oftentimes considering not coming to Barcelona because of language barriers. However, in tech most work is done in English and Spanish, and high execs are not required to speak Catalan. It is more seen in small-sized companies.”

As with Zimbabwe, the economic outlook for women is disappointing: career mobility is very low, and there are very high levels of normative, accepted ageism as well as sexism in hiring. Domingo notes that the government of Catalonia is “working on it.” She notes “Women are afraid to negotiate because of fear to be perceived as pushy or lose offers… this is something to fight.”


“I’ve noticed that women won’t even apply for positions if they believe they are lacking even one of the competencies mentioned in the description. Men might be lacking half or more of these competencies, but they apply without hesitation.” In her experience, female coaching clients share a fear of negotiating and advocating for themselves, so “know your worth and stand your ground” is the mantra here. She advises clients to start higher than they think they should–in Spain, recruiters expect people to make their “number” 15-20% higher than their current or previous salary. So, she says, “Inflate your number a bit, because they will haggle.” It’s imperative to know the specifics of your sector and understand all the negotiable elements of an offer package: salary, bonuses, benefits, termination terms, and other ancillaries depending on your niche. The bottom line? Open misogyny is still normative in hiring practices in Spain. So women job-seekers, in particular, should be prepared to navigate that. “Global research shows women look down the job requirements and only apply if they meet every single one… [they] take it literally…while men apply no matter what… Men make opportunities happen for them.”


The outlook from the US:


Laura Leach: In the United States, the gender wage gap is still a problem as well, and fair pay on the initial offer side as well as internal promotion need to be negotiated with care and attention. Many coaching clients experience confusion about what recruiters are and are not allowed to ask, or do. “US recruiters cannot set budgets. They cannot rescind offers. They might ask you what your current compensation is, but technically they are not allowed to do so.”

Coaching clients, particularly women, fear negotiation and “asking for more.” Leach notes that, as with most regions, it is imperative to do your research and understand what your time and expertise are truly worth. Coaching often includes co-writing negotiation emails or having practice conversations to negotiate an offer or a raise. “65% of women will only apply to a role if they meet 100% of the requirements. Where men will apply if they have less than 50%. Numbers vary depending on the source.”


Leach asks clients–especially women–to consider “What do you need in order to be happy and feel valued?” She stresses approaching negotiations in a way that is “Calm, clear, confident and concise.” Understand the scope of the role and what the negotiable variables are: salary, benefits, bonuses, equity or stock options, remote work flexibility and other ancillary perks.


The takeaway? Whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever you’re looking for in your career, there are certain constants, some of them frustrating or demoralizing. Even very developed nations with large, dynamic economies still disadvantage women across the board. Across all the cultures we investigated, one through-line was that women will resist applying for jobs, or negotiating assertively if they even suspect they have one single “missing” competency or skill. Men investigating the same jobs will blithely apply with half of the indicated skills. In other words, women are, consciously or subconsciously, buying into the mythology of inadequacy and the fear of not being taken seriously in the workplace.


However, outlooks improve across the board when people are willing to learn how to calmly and confidently advocate for their rights, and the right coach can be an incredible asset in that fight. We have a long way to go to close the equity gaps between men and women almost everywhere in the world, and that will be driven by job-seekers, one carefully worded negotiation at a time.

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