by Leslie Morgan Steiner
My sophomore year in college, flush with feminism, I negotiated my first pay raise. My employer – a dorm mom with a new baby – was as shocked as I was when, after three hours caring for her baby, I blurted out that I expected to be paid $8 instead of the $6.50 per hour she handed me. Flustered, she handed me a pile of quarters to make up the difference. I felt an odd mix of emotions -- shame for asking for more money, and exhilaration that I’d gotten it.
Twenty five years later, good news from the ‘Equal Pay’ front lines. Although stubborn gender discrimination means on average, working women earn only 79 cents for every dollar paid their male colleagues, a small subset of women make vastly more than their male counterparts.
The group? The 16 female CEOs in the S&P 500 , according to a new report on 2009 salaries from Bloomberg News. Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo!, has a pay package of $47.2 million. Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld makes $26.3 million a year. Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi earns $15.8 million a year.
That’s a whole lot of quarters.
How and why are these women bucking national trends? Some experts believe that the 79% pay gap exists in part because women rarely negotiate compensation increases during hiring and annual performance reviews. According to an ABC News report by Diane Sawyer  (who Forbes reports earns $15 million a year herself) public company female CEOs avail themselves of the unique leverage of being in the public eye. “CEO pay is transparent,” reporter Bianna Golodryga explains in "Women CEOs Beat Men in Pay in 2009 ." “No board would dare underpay a female CEO for fear of public backlash.” The sweet sixteen earned 40% more than the 484 male CEOs in the S&P 500, and got raises averaging nearly 30% in 2009 -- while male CEOs took pay cuts.
Of course, this huge differential is not due just to savvy negotiation skills. The fact is, these 16 women are very, very good at their high-pressure jobs. And although this cohort is tiny and in no way “average,” all women can – and should -- negotiate for higher salaries, better titles and increased benefits. Like me, most women are trained from our first babysitting job to be grateful for whatever we’re offered. In fact, in an ABC News behavior lab experiment, volunteers were told they would receive between $5 to $12 for participating in a study. Every applicant was offered the minimum rate. However, more than half the men asked for more money. Only one third of the women did.
So the lesson here, ladies: set your sights high, and always ask for more. Find a negotiating buddy – a friend or colleague you trust with confidential information – and role play with him or her before every pay negotiation. Your friend’s job is to prod you to ask for more – whether you are working the counter at Starbucks or running the marketing department at a Fortune 500 conglomerate. Negotiating is not easy. It’s not fun. But trust me, nothing matches the thrill of leaving the negotiating table with a bit more. Sometimes you get more money. Sometimes you walk away only with a bit more pride. Either way, take heart from those female CEOs at the top of the pay pinnacle. And remember: you’re worth it too.