Dear ladies: Do yourselves a favor. Learn to negotiate.

This week The Wall Street Journal published an article about some companies’ “take it or leave it policy” for starting salaries. Organizations that follow the practice say it’s a way to eliminate the exhausting and distracting haggling process. But to me, it sounds like a great way to end up with talent who is either unwilling to speak up or who lacks the confidence to do so – which probably isn’t the group of people I’d want to hire.

But there’s more. These companies also say that it’s a way to reduce pay imbalances in the workforce, particularly among women. The article reiterates what we’ve all heard before: men are far more likely than women to negotiate and women are viewed unfavorably when they do.

Reddit’s interim chief executive Ellen Pao: “People who perform the same should be paid the same. We want to make sure we maintain this level playing field.”

The idea of equal pay makes my little feminist heart flutter, but I don’t think standardizing salaries is the answer. After all what two people really “perform the same”? I think a better solution would be to teach women how to negotiate.

I happen to be pretty fantastic at haggling and would be happy to share my learning process. Here’s what you do: Pack your bags and head to Nigeria for four months. Then attempt to live off a daily stipend of $7* in a city that some claim is as expensive as New York.


I bought my vegetables through a fence. I liked that part.

I’m being serious – sort of. That’s how I learned to haggle.

In Nigeria, you negotiate for virtually everything: food, clothes, bus fares, housing, you name it. And if you show up as I did – as a single, white American lady with nice shoes – you better be prepared to get good at it. And fast.

When I arrived, I was mortified for my fellow volunteers who argued bitterly over price discrepancies that always amounted to less than a dollar. I simply didn’t understand why they were getting so worked up over a handful of nickels.

“You’re arguing over forty cents,” I hissed at a German volunteer when she complained that we were being overcharged for chicken that she said wasn’t chicken at all, but rather pigeon – and “not even good pigeon” at that. “It’s even less if you’re using the Euro!”

But after a few weeks living in Nigeria, I came to see her point. In a city like Abuja, $7 didn’t get you very far. Let $.40 slide here and $.50 there, and you’re going to blow your budget.

It wouldn’t have mattered much had we been able to supplement our income with savings from back home. But Nigeria has no ATMs or any other practical way to access money kept anywhere other than in a Nigerian bank account, which you couldn’t open as a non-resident. We volunteers might have come from a world of extraordinary privilege and comparative wealth, but the stipend was all we had while we were there. When we argued, it wasn’t “a matter of principal,” it was because we were hungry.

Mosque Market

Mosque Market

I got good at haggling because I had to. But, to be honest, it wasn’t that hard to learn. What it comes down to – whether you’re asking for a half-price cabbage or a big signing bonus – is to ask for what you want… and stick to it. While in Abuja, I walked away from many a roadside stand empty-handed only to have a boy chase after me shacking a sack of peanuts yelling the price I wanted to hear.

When it works out that way, you feel great. Or at least as good as one could feel when bargaining about nuts with a child who is probably hungrier than you. But sometimes it doesn’t work, of course. You get turned down and have to try again with someone else. Big deal.

Maybe you don’t have to go all the way to Nigeria to learn how to negotiate, but it’s a skill that everyone needs. If you don’t know how to do it – or you’re too shy to try – you’re going to find yourself on the losing end of a lot of deals. After all, not everyone is like Ellen Pao.

And my bank account is glad for that.

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Related: Last month I wrote a guest post for Cision about how to get a raise. You can read my tips here.

*My stipend did not require me to pay for housing or utilities. So $7/day for food, transportation, personal care and entertainment. 


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