Negotiating a Starting Salary a Critical Step in Closing the Wage Gap

Students’ poster presentation looked at negotiating as a differentiation factor

By

When Rachel Simpson, BS, was a first-year student at University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Optometry, she read a Women In Optometry article about the wage gap in optometry. “It made me so angry, I’ve been trying to figure out how to help close it ever since,” she says. Her determination ended up in research and a poster that she and a team presented at the Heart of America Eye Care Congress in February.

“The first step is to raise awareness,” she says. So she and the team created a questionnaire and gained responses from 831 ODs, representing every U.S. state. “We wanted to determine where in the process we could begin to close the gap,” she says. That point, it turns out, might be in the negotiating phase. “When ODs assertively negotiate, the wage gap gets small,” she says. Men still outearn women, and men who negotiate generally still start at a higher salary, but the difference is significant, she found.

“I had bought into the belief that women didn’t negotiate well enough, and even though their negotiations were not enough to close the wage gap, those who do negotiate seem to be doing it very well.”

The results

According to the data that Simpson and her team collected, the overall wage gap in optometry is about 25 percent; it shrinks considerably to about 7 percent when looking at ODs who graduated in the past seven years.

Negotiation works. For all ODs who started working in the past five years and negotiated their salaries, the average increase was $11,200 higher than the original offer. For women, the average was about $12,000, and for men, the average was about $7,700. Despite the impressive results for women, men still were offered higher starting salaries, she found. She and her colleagues noted that there may be other factors that contributed to the wage gap, but they wrote that research on effective negotiation is important. An individual’s starting salary will have financial repercussions for years to come, they wrote.


Outsource negotiations

Negotiating is such an important factor that Simpson decided she didn’t want to leave this to chance. “I hired a consultant to negotiate my first contract for me,” she says. She played an active part, but the consultant coached her on where and how she could ask for more. “I was conflicted about doing it this way, and while I had to pay a percentage of the increase to the consultant, the higher starting salary now is going to make a huge difference over the course of my career,” she says.

The two areas where she pushed the hardest were bottom line salary numbers and a more lenient noncompete clause. The practice where she’ll be working also added dental insurance to the benefits, so she was happy with that.

“The consultant wanted me to press for one more round of negotiations,” she says. But she felt like she had pushed as far as she was comfortable doing—and she is fairly certain she may not have reached that point on her own. “Hmmm, now that I think about it, maybe I should have gone one more round.”