Lessons from Machiavelli for women on negotiating salary and breaking the glass ceiling

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When Stacey Vanek Smith got her first job in public radio in 2003, she was making a salary of $35,000. She was ecstatic, until she learned that a male counterpart, same job, same experience, was earning $45,000. Another co-worker, a woman of color, same job, same experience, was making $32,000, aligning almost perfectly with national statistics on gender and race pay gaps.

After covering business and economics in the nearly two decades since, Vanek Smith was surprised and frustrated to learn that very little has actually changed.

“One of the stories that sort of perpetually comes up is the gender pay gap,” Vanek Smith told me in a video interview. “And I was talking to an economist, and I remember her saying, ‘Well, there just hasn’t been much progress in 20 years, and the numbers really haven’t moved at all in 10.’ And I was like, they haven’t moved in 10 years?”

That’s when she developed the idea of writing a book to take a deeper look at the issue.

Her book, “Machiavelli for Women,” came out last week.

You’ve probably heard the name Stacey Vanek Smith, especially if you listen to a lot of public radio. Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR’s The Indicator from Planet Money and correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. And she was a longtime reporter and fill-in co-host on Marketplace.

Vanek Smith is also from Boise and graduated from Boise High School before going on to Princeton and Columbia University.

Even better, she used to work on the copy desk at the Idaho Statesman, to which she gives a nod in the intro to her book.

Win the workplace

The book, subtitled “Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace,” is a book of advice to navigate through the world of implicit bias, confirmation bias, and outright discrimination against women and marginalized workers.

The numbers don’t lie: 80% of CEOs are men (90% at Fortune 500 companies); corporate boards are 80% male; two-thirds of federal judges are male; and women start 40% of the businesses in the country, but 98% of venture capital goes to men.

While the problem is clearly systemic, Vanek Smith’s book seeks to work the problem from the bottom up — one employee at a time.

“I wanted something that felt more practical, that was like, ‘What can an individual do?’” she said. “I wanted advice that was practical and research based, and that could just help people, give people options ... and hopefully start to help close some of the gaps that have been stuck for 10 years. And I think eventually once women and marginalized workers get into leadership positions, and policies do change, I think then the needles will move very quickly.”

Getting Machiavellian

The namesake of the book, Nicco Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian politician, is perhaps best known for the attribute of being ruthlessly cunning or scheming. The phrase “the ends justify the means” is often ascribed to him, though he never actually wrote that.

Words and lessons from Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” are threaded throughout Vanek Smith’s book, with one overarching theme of looking at matters practically, as they are, and reacting accordingly, which she counsels women to do in the workplace.

For example, however much it pains Vanek Smith to write, she advises women to smile more during negotiations and to be assertive — but not too assertive on their own behalf.

She also counsels women to recognize the power dynamics that go on in the workplace so that they may avoid things like the Cinderella Syndrome (women get more work dumped on them with the false promise of a reward) and the “hotbox” (women get caught between the expectations of being feminine and demonstrating leadership qualities, which are often diametrically opposed).

For all these situations, she offers advice, such as joining forces to recognize the efforts of a coworker before a male counterpart takes credit or how to handle interrupters.

Salary negotiations

She goes to great lengths to give advice on salary negotiations, as that is obviously at the heart of fighting back against the gender pay gap.

Vanek Smith lays the groundwork by confronting the sometimes painful reasons women often don’t negotiate (conflict avoidance, impostor syndrome, lower self-value), then she offers advice on how to overcome those obstacles. Chapter 10 is dedicated entirely to salary negotiations.

Most women, no doubt, will recognize themselves and their own experiences in the pages of “Machiavelli for Women,” which in and of itself is a victory for the book — a recognition that your experience isn’t unique, that you’re not alone.

But I recommend the book for men, too. While some of what goes on in the workplace is just blatant outright discrimination, a lot of it has to do with implicit bias or confirmation bias, often not even conscious to a hiring manager or a supervisor.

Vanek Smith cites multiple studies that show implicit bias.

For example, a Harvard study showed that when a professional orchestra auditioned people behind a screen (so the musician’s gender was unknown), women were 50% more likely to advance in the audition process and 250% more likely to get the job.

The book is also sprinkled with personal stories, such as a story about a man and a woman who shared a business email account. The man realized a client was being much more difficult to deal with — and taking up way too much time — because the client was questioning and second-guessing everything when he thought he was dealing with the woman. When the client realized he was talking to the man, he was much more compliant and easier to work with.

Vanek Smith also laces the book with interviews she’s conducted with several top women in their fields, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, “Crazy Rich Asians” screenwriter Adele Lim and Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck.

Despite the challenges, the stagnant numbers and the glass ceiling that still exists today, Vanek Smith said she’s still optimistic.

“There are a lot of issues that our country has, a lot of problems,” Vanek Smith said. “But I also think that there’s something really special about just American ingenuity and the fact that people responded to this terrible pandemic and terrible economic recession by starting businesses. That makes me very optimistic. I think the country and the economy is just capable of endless transformation, and I do believe that things are moving in a good direction.”

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