Negotiating Retirement


April 3, 2013 by Jean

I have always been a “good girl”: the type of child who wanted to please the teachers; the type of adolescent who tried to be extra good to compensate my parents for their trials with my rebellious older sister. At work, I’ve been known as a good organizational citizen and cooperative team player. All this means that I am good at the kind of negotiation that involves mediating between opposing positions and finding a workable compromise. But I’m not good at the kind of negotiation that involves advocating for myself, especially in an adversarial situation.

But I know that my discomfort with this kind of negotiation costs me, as it does other women. Some recent research on the gender wage gap has looked at negotiation as an important explanation for why there is still a gap between the salaries of young people just out of school with similar training and credentials. It seems that when a young man is offered a salary by a prospective employer, he is likely to see it as the opening of a negotiation and to feel entitled to the best salary he can get. A young woman offered the same wage is likely to beam in gratitude and say, “Thank you; that sounds wonderful!” I did exactly this 35 years ago in my first full-time teaching job out of graduate school. I had been living on $4000 per year in teaching assistantships and graduate student stipends; then I got a part-time teaching position teaching 2 courses per semester for $2000 each, or $8000 per year. When I was offered a full-time faculty position at a prestigious liberal arts college teaching only 1/3 more and being paid almost twice as much ($15,800), I was thrilled; it never occurred to me to ask for more. It turned out that I settled for a salary so low that the college had to give me a $200 raise before I even began work in order to bring my salary up to the bottom of the new faculty salary range! And low starting salaries for women compound over time as annual increases are based on a percentage of base pay and as women are less adept in negotiating raises at critical points in their careers.

The resulting gender wage gap has real consequences for women’s quality of life in retirement. Decades of data show that women have less money to live on in retirement – lower social security payments, less saved in their 401(k) and IRA accounts – because of their lower wages during their working years. Married women who have access to a male salary tend to be better off both during their working years and after retirement; unmarried women are most at risk for financial hardship both before and during retirement. This graphic from the ING Retirement Research Institute shows how retirement savings are affected by gender and marital status (click to enlarge).


Knowing all this created a dilemma for me recently in negotiating the terms of my retirement. After I had signed my employer’s standard retirement agreement (see  Taking the First Step), I learned from a colleague that I might be eligible for something called a “terminal sabbatical.” (Part of the employment structure of academia is that faculty members get a sabbatical every 7 years – a paid leave from teaching to focus for a semester or a year on research and writing. A terminal sabbatical is a paid research and writing leave at the end of your career.) Since I was still within the seven-day cooling-off period after signing my retirement agreement, I got in touch with the administrator who handles these things and asked about the terminal sabbatical. “If I’m eligible for this,” I explained, ”I don’t want to leave the money on the table out of ignorance. What do I need to do to change the agreement to include a terminal sabbatical?”

I got a response back pretty quickly telling me that I had been misinformed, that terminal sabbaticals were actually very rare and only negotiated in exceptional situations, and that the funds for this came out of the pool for faculty salaries and could only be paid for by cutting salaries elsewhere. This pushed all my “good girl” buttons! I started to write an apologetic response saying that I hadn’t intended to ask for special treatment and that I certainly didn’t want to cause hardship for others. Before I hit “send,” however, I stopped myself. Instead, I simply remained silent. Three days later, I was notified that my terminal sabbatical had been approved and I signed my new retirement agreement.

If I had succumbed to my female conditioning and withdrawn my request for a terminal sabbatical, I would have given up 6 months of full-time salary (and 6 months of employer contributions to my retirement account). I would have begun retirement with less in savings, and I would have started drawing on my 403(b) and on Social Security 6 months earlier than I now will. The financial consequences of this would have reverberated throughout my retirement. I have a feeling none of the men I know would ever have considered backing down from this request.

Scenes like this, played over and over throughout women’s work lives, are a big part of the reason why women in general, and unmarried women in particular, have less money to live on in retirement. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who would have benefitted financially from being taught how to advocate for my own interests in negotiations.

8 thoughts on “Negotiating Retirement

  1. Jean says:

    Wow, your experience and first impulse with the sabbatical sure points out that we women still have a long way to go, doesn’t it. The job I held all through the 60s paid me (an unmarried woman) exactly half of my male co-worked who, in some cases, had less training that I did. We have come along but you’re probably right that women just don’ negotiate as well as men by nature. Glad you got your sabbatical.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, As a sociologist, I’m more likely to attribute things to nurture than to nature; but, whatever the reasons(s), women don’t seem to be as good at this kind of negotiation as men — and it’s not just us old fuddy-duddies; it’s also the young women coming of age in the 21st century. A colleague in Gettysburg College’s Management department has been doing coaching for women students to help them prepare to handle this in job interviews, and he reports considerable success.
      I’m glad I got the sabbatical, too :-).

  2. Diana Studer says:

    quiet patient silence – and what a reward! Well done, and hard earned.

  3. We sound too familiar Jean. Even when we try to hold out for more money we are then passed over for someone else and if that some else is a man they are given more money….I find it goes deeper to out right discrimination. But I have become hardened with negotiating for myself over the last almost ten yrs and will be negotiating my retirement soon. I may not get what I want but I am still going…I am done playing the good girl and falling for the, “take it or leave it” or even the guilt placed on us. I’ll let you know how I do…and good for you Jean!!

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I know you will understand how hard this was for me; I’m still feeling a bit guilty about it — as though I stole something that I didn’t deserve to have! In my 30s, I figured out that being selfless wasn’t a virtue, that selfless means “having no self.” But I still haven’t been able to get past the idea that selfishness is a terrible sin; it’s amazing how tenacious those early lessons are.

      • Emily says:

        First of all, Donna, I’m rooting for you! And Jean, wow. I’m SO glad you decided not to write that reply. I agree with you that selflessness is not a virtue. But–to my way of thinking–selfishness is not the opposite. Doing what you need to do to properly look after/take care of yourself is simply being responsible. Your situation with the sabbatical seems very straightforward: your retirement comes within the seven-year period and this additional paid time is part of your original agreement as ladder faculty. Period. Sorry if I sound a little miffed, but it makes me angry that they tried to take advantage of you that way. Not unusual but galling all the same. And good for you for doing something that was so clearly difficult for you. That took a lot of genuine courage. More than the money (though the money is a very good thing), breaking an old pattern, doing what is uncomfortable are incredibly valuable steps to take. I know (really know) how difficult that is to do. And I’m so happy for you that you found the strength to do this.

        • Jean says:

          I remember reading Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice in the 1980s and thinking “how true” when she noted that the hardest lesson about morality for women is the moral importance of taking care of yourself as well as taking care of others. Clearly, I am still learning that lesson.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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