Women in STEM and Negotiation

By Rebecca Chaleff*

Last Thursday, September 22nd, I went to CUNY Graduate Center’s event, “Women in Science: Negotiating a Successful Academic Career,” at the Segal Theatre, which was moderated by Dr. Gillian Small, CUNY’s Vice Chancellor for Research, and featured an animated address from keynote speaker Dr. Maribel Vazquez.  Also on board was a distinguished panel of experts, including: Dr. Dongming Cai, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, Dr. Mary Kern, Pamela Silverblatt, Esq., and Dr. Ruth Stark.  Together, they offered a wide range of personal perspectives on the main issue at hand: negotiation.

Dr. Small opened the event by citing a few upbeat statistics about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields:  “The good news is that women have outnumbered men in colleges over the last decade and have been earning more important positions in academia.”  The bad news?  Even though women represent over 40% of those working in STEM fields, they are still earning less than men.  According to the US Department of Commerce, “for every dollar earned by a man in STEM, a woman earns 14% less." Dr. Small rooted the bad news in a central problem: women are expected to act less aggressively than men, so they are less likely to negotiate with enthusiasm.

When Dr. Vazquez, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, CCNY, talked about her own career, she viewed it in terms of negotiation.  “In research, everything is a negotiation,” whether for facilities, equipment, funding, whatever.  But she also said that she could only see this in retrospect; maybe she was in denial, she offered, having skirted the raincloud of preconceptions that hover over women in similar situations.  Women tend to underestimate their worth in the STEM market.  “Know what you can do!” “Fight for what you want!” she recommended.

During the discussion,  Dr. Kern, Associate Professor of Management, Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, said that there were simple models and strategies that women could adopt. Ms. Silverblatt, CUNY Vice Chancellor for Labor Relations, said it was important to have “a personal style that works for you,” a “sense of confidence,” and an “arsenal of skills that aren’t so easy to teach.”  Dr. Stark, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Acting Dean of Science, CCNY, advocated what she called a “feel your way” tactic of negotiating, based on asking questions and tailoring expectations in response to others.  Everyone agreed that you need to have your facts straight, and know your parameters.

The biggest emphasis seemed to be on style and nuance, although not much attention was paid to bias itself: that women aren’t supposed to negotiate.  Instead, it focused on tactics.  Women have to have a style, and they have to have finesse, because they have to tip-toe around aggression and negotiation in a way that men will never have to.  Thanks to gender stereotypes, women have to negotiate twice as much as men in order to advocate for themselves: they have to negotiate other people’s expectations before they can even get to the real issues.  It’s a real burden for women to carry around with them in the workforce, but luckily there are role models and useful advice out there on what women can do with the chromosomes they have been dealt.  It’ll take a while for gendered biases to be overcome, and everyone could stand around tapping their feet and waiting, but better to follow the inspiring examples of these “Women in the Sciences” and move forward.

If you’re interested in reading more studies and opinions on issues surrounding women and negotiation, the following articles might be of interest:




*Rebecca Chaleff just completed her Masters in Gender and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is currently a Communications Intern with the National Council for Research on Women.

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