Dear Negotiators,

I am trying to return to the workforce after about two years of being off raising my twin girls. During this time, I did a bit of consulting, and I stayed very current on what was happening with my field, but it was important to me to be a stay-at-home mom when my children were babies.

Now that they're older, though, I'm excited to get back to the world of the working. Before my leave, I was a Project Manager at a medium-sized tech company, and I am looking for similar roles now.

After a few interviews with a particular company, I was offered a position—with a pretty low-ball salary offer; I did research on salary.com and Payscale and found that it that was about 30% less than what someone with my experience should be making. When I tried to negotiate the offer based on my research, I was basically told that I shouldn't expect to make those numbers because of "my special circumstances"—i.e., because I've been out of the workforce for two years.

I ended up not taking the job—for many reasons—but I'm worried that this will come up in future negotiations. What are the rules for salary negotiations when I've been out of the workforce? Should I expect to take a cut from my "market value?" How should I approach future compensation conversations?

Many thanks in advance for your advice. 

Confused Mom



Dear Confused Mom,

Unless your two years off will genuinely make you less valuable than your peers, low-ball salaries explained away by your “special circumstances” are discriminatory, plain and simple. Think of it this way: Would an employer ever suggest that a cancer survivor take a 30% cut in pay because his or her illness and time out of the office for treatment constituted a “special circumstance” that decreased his or her value in the workforce? Or suggest that a returning veteran’s value was reduced because he or she served the country for two years? I don’t think so.

It’s treatment like this that likely accounts for the 16% delta between working mothers and their female peers who are not parents. (There is, of course, no similar parental penalty for men, whose pay and stature generally increases when they become parents.)

Now, sure, there are some fields in which your two-year absence might in fact make you less valuable. In medicine, two additional years performing, say, open heart surgery, might be required to lead the surgical team. The same could be true in my profession—the law—where a firm might not be able to bill your time out at the same rate as another lawyer with two years additional experience in, for instance, trying cases or building client relations. Since I don’t have more information about your role, I’ll leave it to you to take into account any “get back up to speed” time a new employer would have to invest in you that could affect your market value.

That said, I have consulted with far too many women who (somewhat foolishly) accepted “low-ball” offers when they returned from maternity leave or a couple of years off to stay at home with their children. Some of them feel grateful to have been offered any job, but the truth is: The effect of accepting a low salary can be profound. Whenever you seek a raise or a new job, your existing salary will act as an extremely strong “anchor” that will keep your wages low for the remainder of your career, which will, in turn, lower your social security benefits, limit your twins’ educational opportunities, and affect the financial security of your family for decades.

You have also done exactly what career consultants advise mothers who temporarily leave the workforce do—keep your hand in the industry and continue doing some work in the field. So, if and only if you conclude that you are indeed a less valuable returnee to the workforce than you would be had you not taken time off, build a short “get back up to speed” time into your employment agreement—say, three months at a lower rate to transition back to market value pay thereafter. Otherwise, do not accept low-ball offers.

Come to any salary negotiation equipped with the benchmarking data you got from Payscale and salary.com. It would also help your salary proposal if you made some discreet inquires about salaries at your prospective employer’s shop, along with any other information you can glean online or from personal sources that will allow you to discuss the manner in which your education, skills, and experience are particularly well-suited to further the company’s mission, increase its financial well-being, meet its challenges, and improve its market position.

Then, if you are met with the argument that a firm intends to pay you less because of your absence from the workplace, start to ask questions about how that absence affects your ability to do your job. Ask open-ended who, what, where, when, why, and how questions that call for a narrative answer.

Here are just a few.

  • How do you think my two-year absence will affect my ability to do the job you’re offering me?
  • Has anyone else in the company has taken a 30% reduction in pay because they took time off for children?
  • How does the company deal with absences from the workforce in other circumstances, such as illness?
  • How long do you think it would take me to close the perceived gap in my value such that the company will be able to close the gap in my pay?
  • When would the company be willing to re-evaluate my status to determine whether I have proved myself to be as valuable to the company as my peers who will be paid 30% more than I will be making?
  • Just raising these questions could well make the company re-think its position, which is more likely the result of unconscious bias than it is the desire of the company to deprive you of what you’re worth.

    The answers to these questions might also make you rethink your proposal for full market value, while giving you the information you need to make up for lost time. Again, you should offer to prove your value for a limited period of time and ask for a firm date on which to revisit your salary.

    The answers to these questions might also give you the opportunity to counter stereotypes and reassert the reasons why your prospective employer’s assumptions do not apply to you (because, for instance, you kept your hand in the game and did some consulting while you were out of the workplace).

    In a worst case scenario, answers to these questions may well lead you to the conclusion that this company does not respect the contribution of its parents as much as it does its non-parents—a red flag that would have me moving on to the next job opportunity.

    In sum, the first step is to realize that you are not a less valuable worker simply because you temporarily left the workplace to do the critical work of child-rearing. The second step is to prepare to support your request for compensation that matches your market value. The third step is to ask for it, while presenting good reasons for your position. The fourth step is to ascertain the many reasons a prospective employer might be unconsciously diminishing your market value. The fifth step is to state all the reasons why those explanations do not apply in your unique situation.

    Good luck, and please let us know what happens with your return to work. And congratulations on the twins! It’s a shame that mothers are made to feel they have to go hat in hand just to return to the workforce and a greater shame for employers to take advantage of their status. Let the new gender-neutral and parent-friendly workplace begin with you!

    Photo of women negotiating courtesy of Shutterstock.