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A Saturday workshop designed to help college-age women negotiate their first salary and benefits package earned a thumbs-up from at least one participant.

“I came in here not knowing anything, not at all confident in my ability to go into the real world and get a salary based on my skill set and not on my desperation to get a job,” said Michaela Shifley, a senior at Rocky Mountain College. “Today was extremely helpful.”

The Start Smart workshop, funded by the Women’s Foundation of Montana, was led by Emily Arendt, a history professor at MSU Billings; Gillette Vaira, president of the Billings branch of the American Association of University Women; and Joy Barber, a writing instructor at City College, where the workshop was held.

Statistics vary on the gap between what women earn compared to their male counterparts. Start Smart says that Latina women earn, on average, 54 cents for every dollar men earn. For African American women, it’s 64 cents. Women in general make 79 cents for every dollar men earn. Even for men and women with virtually identical backgrounds working the same jobs, the woman will earn about 93 cents on the dollar compared to men.

Women can begin to bridge that gap, Arendt said, by becoming better negotiators. That’s an important skill, she said, because “the ramifications will follow you for your whole career.”

Remember, she told workshop participants: the employer has already chosen you over all other candidates for the job. “That gives you some power,” she said. “(Negotiating) can be a little nerve-racking, but you know your value, and they know your value. You need to advocate for that. If you are objective, rational and reasonable, they aren’t going to withdraw that offer.”

Salary and benefit negotiation, she said, is “a well-understood part of the hiring process. Negotiations will further your career and not hinder it.”

Successful negotiators know not only what budget they’ll need to cover expenses in the town where they want to live — they also should know salary ranges in that community for the job they’re trying to land. Fortunately, that information is readily available through multiple sources, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Montana’s wage information is at, and

According to Start Smart, applicants should set their negotiating range — called the bolstering range — somewhat higher than their target salary. Barber used a caterer as an example: say the caterer says she can provide meals for your dinner party at a range of $35-$50 per plate. Once you hear those numbers, you’ll focus on the $35 figure — even if you want her to upgrade the meal in some way.

“If you tell (the employer) the minimum, that’s what they’ll fix on,” Barber said. “You don’t want to lowball yourself. Keep the anchor at your target, or slightly higher than the target.”

Benefits, from flexible hours to professional development, can be negotiated as well. “Those can be more worthwhile than extra money,” Barber said.

Applicants should start their negotiations only after receiving a job offer. If the employer asks the applicant for salary requirements before that happens, Start Smart recommends deflecting the question until the job offer is in hand.

“This is the kind of stuff you will want to rehearse, out loud, even if it’s just out loud to your mirror,” Barber said.

But applicants should also trust their instincts, she said.

“If you get the sense that if you push too hard it will be problematic for you, trust your gut,” Barber said. “But just because you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean the salary negotiation is going to backfire.”

At the conclusion of the nearly 3-hour workshop, participants were invited to practice their new skills on the instructors, who played the role of prospective employers. Despite their discomfort, participants aced their final exam, instructors said.

“This is the opportunity,” Arendt told the group, “to say the things out loud that will give you the confidence you need.”

A second free Start Smart workshop is set for 10 a.m. through 12:30 p.m. April 9, 2016, on the MSU Billings campus. Learn more at



City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.