Empowering Change through Salary Advocacy and Negotiation

By Jen Munch posted 10-29-2019 13:26


Anisha Gupta, Ariel O’Connor, and Jen Munch

There’s a general taboo in society to talk about money, and this extends to discussing your salary, especially in the workplace. But this attitude has led to significantly depressed wages, especially for women and people of color. In April, ECPN and AIC’s Equity & Inclusion Committee hosted a webinar entitled “Gender Equity in the Conservation Field”. This blog post continues the conversation looking specifically at the gender pay gap and the importance of negotiating your salary. 

How many of us have heard these sentiments in the workplace:

“You’re lucky to have this job. You should be grateful, not demanding.”
“The institution just doesn’t have more money to pay you.”
“Everyone at the institution is paid as poorly as you.”
“I know my employer will look out for me and my salary.”

As conservators, we have amazing access to important cultural heritage. But passion and love for our jobs won’t pay the rent. 

Demystifying the gender pay gap

Workers are not paid equivalently for equivalent jobs. Conservation is a female-majority field, with 75% of conservators identifying as female.1 When a field is majority female, the pay overall decreases. This affects men’s pay as well because women’s work is valued less. The pay gap can no longer be dismissed by saying that women outnumber men in lower-paying jobs like teaching and social work. In fact, a study by sociologist Paula England at New York University shows that when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before. In this New York Times article, the author goes through England’s results from one of the most comprehensive studies using US Census data from 1950 to 2000. Her study found that “the median earnings of information technology managers (mostly men) are 27 percent higher than human resources managers (mostly women), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. At the other end of the wage spectrum, janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners (usually women).”2 During this 50-year time period, the study also found that when the proportion of male camp counselors dropped, the pay declined 57%. 

Conservation is also subject to this phenomenon. Recent data from two AIC/FAIC compensation surveys from 2009 and 2014 give us a picture of the field. The chart below shows the average compensation of males and females in conservation across institution types as reported in the 2014 AIC/FAIC Conservation Compensation Research survey. In all three institution types, men earned more money than women. Not only did men earn more, they also showed greater salary growth from 2009 to 2014 (in museums, men’s salaries went up 13.9% while women only went up 7.9%).

And this breaks down not only by gender, but also by race. For example, an Asian woman makes 85 cents to the dollar earned by a white man, while a white woman only makes 77 cents to the dollar.

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The gender pay gap is the result of many factors, including occupational segregation, bias against working mothers, and direct pay discrimination. Additionally, such things as racial bias, disability, access to education, and age come into play. Employer practices compound the problem, such as using prior salary history to set current pay and prohibiting employees from discussing their wages.

With so many external factors affecting pay inequity, it’s easy to feel helpless. So what can we do about it? 

Salary negotiation research

One of the points in your career where you have power and leverage is when you’re negotiating for a new job. You’ve probably gone through a long interview process where many staff members have invested a lot of time. They’ve chosen you! Negotiating for a salary will not cause them to rescind their offer. In fact, they expect you to negotiate and often offer you a salary lower than what they can pay you. It’s your job to advocate for the highest salary you can from the institution.

At first, negotiating feels like an intimidating and mysterious process. But if you approach salary negotiation in a scientific way, like approaching a conservation treatment on a new artwork, the process becomes a research project - and conservators are great at those! Your research will help present an argument for better salary and benefits, and your numbers will be presented to HR along with justification from comparable public data, adjusted for cost of living in your area. When you present your ask along with comparable data, you make a stronger case.

There are 3 main forms of compensation you can research for negotiation: Salary, Annual Leave, and Benefits.

1. Salary
      1. Most federal salaries are public, so you can search for the past 4 years of salary history for your federally-funded conservation colleagues by name or institution at FedsDataCenter
        • FedSmith has instructions to help search. For example, the Agency tab for Smithsonian is “Smithsonian Institution” and Occupation is “General Arts and Information.” If you enter those parameters and “Washington” “2018” you will get a list of over 300 employees who work in DC, many of whom are conservators. You must enter the search fields exactly to get a match (last name,first name - no space), so make sure to follow the guidelines and search in a few different ways if you don’t get an entry result the first time.
      2. Federal conservation salaries follow the General Schedule (GS) salary table, updated for cost of living each year. The table is adjusted by location; select the pay table for the current year and closest geographic area. Technicians are typically in GS Grade 9. Conservators with a masters degree usually start at GS Grade11, and many jobs are listed as GS11/12. Lab heads can be GS13/14/15. Each GS grade has 10 step rates (1-10), and annual increases are based on good performance and time. Step increases occur at intervals: 1 year each during steps 1-3, 2 years at steps 4-6, and 3 years at steps 7-9. So, a conservator hired directly after grad school would start at GS-11 Step 1, and advance based on the intervals above.
      3. To use this system to determine where you might be, use how many years you’ve been out of school. For example, 5 years out of grad school would fall in GS-11, Step 4. Look up this salary amount on the GS table for your nearest city, and you have an equivalent example salary to start negotiations. It is common to negotiate with the level and grade in federal hiring practices - you can say “I request GS-11, Step 5” instead of a salary number.
      4. Harvard University also uses salary ranges in job grades, which can be used for comparison during negotiations. Conservators fall under the professional positions, from grades 55-64. A conservator hired immediately out of grad school would likely start at the low end of grade 56. Associate level supervisory conservators are in grade 57, senior level conservators are in 58, and lab heads are in 59. Technicians in the Harvard libraries are grades 52-54, with Senior Technicians at 54 and possibly 55. Note that grade 55 can be union or non-union, but grades 54 and below are union, so salary changes are based on union contracts.

    • Cost of living: Research what it costs to live in the area. You should have a good idea of whether the salary they offer will cover your expenses. Use the MIT Living Wage Calculator and the Economic Policy Institute’s calculator. These sources give you the bare minimum of what it will take to live in an area. Finally, consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has a lot of information on various cities. 

    • Institution financial health: Learn more about the financial health of the institution. Nonprofit organizations submit publicly available 1099 forms to the IRS. Guidestar, a database of nonprofit financial information for increased transparency, makes these forms easy to search and access. Set up a free profile and look up the organization’s 990 form to learn more about the organization, including operating budget, number of staff, how many staff members make over $100k, and more. Follow the instructions on this blog post to learn how to read the form. 


    2. Annual Leave / Paid Time Off (vacation days, sick time, alternate work schedule, etc)
      • Federal jobs have clearly defined annual leave policies, which can be cited at any institution for negotiating additional vacation days. New federal employees earn 4 hours of annual leave per 80 hours worked (13 paid days off a year). After 3 years of federal service, you earn 6 hours/pay period (19.5 days). After 15 years of federal service, 8 hours/pay period (26 days).
      • Negotiate this annual leave based on your years out of grad school. A conservator 3 years or more out of school can request 6 hours/pay period by citing equal experience at a comparable institution.
      • Outside of the government, you can try and negotiate for both paid or unpaid vacation days.

    3. Benefits
    Ask what the institution offers for the following benefits. Some may come with the offer, and you can negotiate to add in others.
      • Cost-of-living adjustment
      • Moving expenses
      • Flexible schedule (examples: remote work 1 day per week; extended hours/ fewer workdays). If this is an option you want, be sure to request it during negotiations; some employers have mandatory waiting periods to switch to flexible schedules
      • 401(k) matching
      • Health insurance plans
      • Professional development: money for travel, conferences, time for teaching, etc.
      • Commuter tax benefits
      • Negotiating for desired responsibilities including couriering, supervising interns, research time, teaching workshops or classes 
      • Student loan repayment assistance. This can come in the form of employer-matched payments or monthly contributions to student loans (typically around $100 a month). Idea: Joy Bloser

    The government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) states that agencies have “considerable discretionary authority to provide additional compensation and leave benefits to support their employee recruitment, relocation, and retention efforts.” These authorized categories are outlined here, which you can cite when requesting a higher salary, annual leave time, or benefits

    How to negotiate

    Negotiating over the phone is often recommended by recruiters. You can respond more easily to the other person and in real-time. This can be really intimidating, though by the time you have your research, you will be much more comfortable on the phone. It is also acceptable to negotiate over email, and many conservators prefer this, as they can justify the number with examples and citations. Here is an example email template for requesting a higher salary than offered. HR employees are rarely authorized to approve a higher salary request, so they will need to forward your counter offer up the chain. Having it in writing with your justifications will help upper management see that you are serious about this request and can justify the number. If you negotiate over the phone, make sure you follow-up via email and get everything in writing. 

    When you’re responding to the initial offer, do not agree to anything right away. Respond that you would like their offer in writing, and you will submit your counter offer in writing or over the phone (your preference). Take your time - they likely did the same in selecting you for the position, and you deserve equal time to think, research, discuss with colleagues, and respond appropriately. Do not be intimidated into accepting anything right away, which is an HR tactic to keep salaries low. You have the upper hand at this point in negotiations, and time will help you. Ask about other benefits they offer (health insurance, professional development, vacation time, moving expenses, 401(k) matching). You can also ask “how did you calculate this number.”

    After the offer, your research should lead you to a range that you are aiming for this job, based on what you know about the going rates for similar conservators or jobs, and the experience you bring to this job. Within this range, let’s say that the median rate is what the position should pay if the candidate was right at the experience and skill level specified in the job posting. For the sake of this example, the job posting specifies 10 years of experience. If you have exactly that ten years, this median rate may be a good target for you. If you have significantly more experience, a higher level of skill or there is some other factor that makes you particularly qualified for the job, you should place yourself higher than the median.


    Now that you have a target number relative to your skill and experience level, bump that number up by 10, 15 or 20 percent - depending on your research numbers. Your target number is your goal, but you will ask for target + a percentage. If you ask just for your target, you may receive a counter-offer below your target number. If you aim higher, you may be offered your target salary or one slightly higher. You should still justify the higher percentage ask, which you can by citing your relevant experience at other institutions that you will bring to this new institution, adding knowledge and thus additional value. With the links and resources above, calculating your salary and benefits request isn’t a mystery - it’s based on citable research.

    If you are asked to name your expected salary or range before being offered the job, you should deflect. One way to do this is to say that you want to learn more about the job first to give a realistic number. Another way could be to ask what range the employer has in mind for the position. 

    It is also best to deflect if you are asked to share your current or prior salary. You may wish to simply say that you are not comfortable discussing your current salary, or that you prefer to focus on the value that you will add in this new position. In some cities and states, candidates cannot legally be asked about their salary history, to help lessen the gender-based pay gap. Do not lie about your salary history. Prospective employers can legally ask you to disclose salary history once an offer has been made. At this time, they can also legally ask your current or prior employers. Alternately, you may wish to disclose your current salary if you learn that the new offer is significantly lower than your current pay. In this instance, your current salary can be an effective number to use as leverage.

    Practice negotiating

    You will be more confident if you practice your negotiation tactic ahead of time. Practice making your pitch. Consider possible reactions that the interviewer may have, and practice responding to these as well. You should practice out loud, preferably with one or more people who you trust. If this is not possible for you, practice in front of a mirror. 

    Asking for a raise within an institution

    When should you ask for a raise? An ideal time could be just after you accomplish something big. Whenever you make your pitch, make sure to mention your accomplishments, as your supervisor will not necessarily remember them. It is ideal to make this pitch in person. It can help to write out a list of these accomplishments and give a copy to your supervisor during the meeting. If you are off-site from your supervisor, the next best option is to make the pitch by phone. Do not expect an immediate answer to your request.

    Waiting to ask until your annual review may put you in competition with the department’s entire raise budget. If you can negotiate the raise prior to annual review time, your raise can be planned into the next fiscal year’s budget.

    For federal employees, begin this process early since it will take time. Ask for the written job description of the next GS level during your mid-year review and discuss it point-by-point during your annual review with your supervisor. If there are elements you haven’t done, discuss how to add those responsibilities to your schedule. When it’s time for your supervisor to request a step or grade increase, they will be ready to negotiate on your behalf. If you feel you’ve done a project worthy of recognition, discuss this too, as your supervisor can request a monetary award for exceptional work.

    Consider saying no

    If a salary offer falls significantly below your expectations, consider declining the job offer altogether. Rejecting a job offer generally is not considered a good negotiation strategy; however, in some instances, it is your best recourse to obtain a new, higher offer. Be prepared to walk away if you choose this strategy.


    1: Westermann, Mariët, et al. "Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018." Ithaka S+R. 28 January 2019. Web. 1 September 2019. 
    2: Miller, Claire C. “As Women Take Over A Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops.” The New York Times. March 2016. 1 September 2019.
    3: This survey costs $20 to download. If you work at an institution that is an AAM member, the HR department or equivalent can often access it for free.

    Additional Resources:




    11-05-2019 15:44

    Hi Jacinta,

    This is a great question! To follow up on Ariel's comment, I can suggest the following:

    • Research and demonstrate to your employer what salaries tend to be offered at similarly-sized institutions and those in geographic regions with comparable costs of living. As Ariel mentioned, the ECPN Fellowship Compensation Resource is useful in this regard.
    • Advocating for internal pay equity within your institution can be your strongest argument. If you can, I would recommend compiling salary information for other types of post-graduate internships, fellowships, or grant-funded positions (curatorial fellowships, for example) offered within the institution. You can usually find this on the institution's website or in posted advertisements. In order to directly compare termed positions of different durations, it’s useful to break down the salary by month and display this type of data in an easy-to-digest chart.
    • If possible, when there are multiple individuals in the same type of position and with the same salary (say, for example, your institution has an objects fellow, paintings fellow, and paper fellow), it’s most effective to work on a strategy for advocacy together (i.e. each person meets with their direct supervisor to present the statistics gathered in the first two points). 

    It may be helpful to keep in mind that many of these types of positions are supported by endowments that can only provide so much each year. In this case, it's great if your supervisor/the institution is willing to explore supplementary funding sources or consider redistributing the funding in some way. I hope this is helpful!

    All the best,

    11-02-2019 14:54

    Hi Jacinta -

    Yes, I know of one example where Fellows collectively and successfully negotiated a higher institutional stipend. I will contact the conservators involved and ask them to reach out to you.  Thanks for bringing this up. 

    Make sure to look at the ECPN Fellowship Compensation Resource sheet hyperlinked in the article.  It's a great start to compare stipends, benefits, and travel awards for various fellowships.


    11-01-2019 18:20

    Thank you, Anisha, Ariel, and Jen, for a fantastic blog post. Negotiating salaries is a very important skill for us to develop and you provide many helpful tips.

    I wonder if anyone from the conservation community has experience negotiating post-graduate internship salaries or other grant-funded positions. If so, do you have any advice to offer?

    Jacinta Johnson
    Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative
    University of Kansas