Two women sit across from each other at a table in an office setting.

Sara Sanford’s Tips for Negotiating While Underrepresented

By Jade Forde, Marketing Specialist at AWIS
AWIS National Webinar Speaker Sara Sanford
Sara Sanford, founder and executive director of Gender Equity Now

As a woman in the workforce or lab, it can feel challenging to negotiate for yourself. It can be even more challenging for minorities, people with disabilities, or those who are neurodivergent. Learning how to navigate the biases you may face in advocating for yourself, however, is essential to career growth and satisfaction. According to Sara Sanford, founder and executive director of Gender Equity Now (GEN), the first step is knowing what you are up against.

Earlier in 2022, Sanford led a webinar in which she offered insightful research showing how biased baselines impact negotiations:

  • As an example, when typically underrepresented individuals are in spaces where we are not used to seeing them, we tend to overestimate their presence.
  • Similarly, our expectations of others’ behaviors are typically shaped by what we’ve seen in the past. Anything that disrupts these expectations can feel extreme and can inaccurately shape our perceptions of others’ behaviors, based on what we expect them to be doing.
  • We tend to push back on dynamics or behaviors that don’t match our baseline, because we feel that these actions are extreme. Therefore, a manager who is not used to a woman asking for a raise may bristle.

Sanford notes, “In a series of studies conducted by the Harvard Business School, researchers found that when women do dare to negotiate for a pay raise, people in hiring and management roles like them less and are less likely to work with them.”

Despite the barriers that women and other underrepresented groups face, it is still possible to negotiate—and win—and to avoid the potential pitfalls of biased interactions. Doing so won’t only set you up for a more successful career—it can also set a new standard for the women who will come later. Sanford shared the following tips for how to play with power dynamics and to use them to your advantage:

  • Don’t start with browbeating or giving logical arguments. People want to be heard, understood, and acknowledged more than they want to be convinced. Sanford recommends using skills of tactical empathy to help uncover the motivations of your counterpart.
  • Instead of prioritizing your argument, focus on what the other person says. If objections surface, treat them as a chance to learn what your counterpart wants or is limited or concerned by. Reframe “why” questions to “what” or “how.” For example, ask, “What about this is important to you?” or “How can we solve this problem?” These types of questions will diffuse the situation and make your counterpart feel heard. Asking these kinds of questions also positions you as a collaborator, rather than as an adversary.
  • Sanford also highlights the power a pause can hold, in response to an objection—both to avoid a knee-jerk response and also to maintain a sense of calm in the conversation. “A pause gives you a second to take a breath, remember that you can do this, and then think about how you are going to turn something into a calibrated question,” she says.
  • Finally … Practice! These skills are only powerful if you can execute them with calm and control. This mindset comes with testing how you feel in mock negotiations with peers who are willing to push back on you when practicing.

With these tools for negotiating, advocating for what you want can be a less daunting task. Want to learn more about these techniques and to hear some examples? AWIS members can watch the webinar replay.

Gender Equity Now (GEN) provides a data-driven approach to removing systemic barriers, so that employers can move beyond diversity to equity and inclusion. As founder and Executive Director of GEN, Sara Sanford believes businesses have the tools to be equity-focused and impact-oriented. If you believe your company is ready to go beyond good intentions to measurable progress, visit to learn more about the GEN Certification model.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.