A tool for girls to get what they’re worth

‘Speak Up!’ teaches the skills of negotiation

  • Education
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Photo credit @Robin DeNoma for Carnegie Mellon University.
Students from Gwen’s Girls, a Pittsburgh program led by Kathi Elliott that provides gender-specific education programs and experiences to empower girls and young women to lead productive lives, learn negotiation skills from Lorretta Sackey at Carnegie Mellon University. The goal of the Speak Up! program, delivered by PROGRESS, a CMU organization that encourages students to become effective leaders, is to minimize wage and leadership gaps between men and women.

On a blazing hot day in August, 32 12- to -13-year-old girls sat in rows of swiveling, blue-backed chairs in a classroom at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Pittsburgh, Pa.

On the tables in front of each girl, were water bottles and a black workbook with the words “Speak Up!”

“Speak Up!” teaches young girls effective negotiation skills to minimize wage and leadership gaps between men and women. The curriculum was created by Ayana Ledford and Linda Babcock, Ph.D., who together founded the Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society (PROGRESS). PROGRESS is based on the same academic research behind two books which Babcock co-authored, “Women Don’t Ask” and “Ask For It.”

At a podium a few feet away, Lorretta Sackey, a 2019 graduate of Heinz College’s Master of Public Management program, asks for the attention of the group who all came from Gwen’s Girls. The program led by Kathi Elliott provides gender-specific education and experiences that empower girls and young women.

“I’m going to be your negotiation expert today,” said Sackey, who, during her two-year graduate school program, took a negotiation class. She also worked with Ledford to cultivate the important skills she now teaches to others.

“So we’re going to talk about negotiation and why negotiation matters,” said Sackey. “First and foremost, can anyone tell me what negotiation is or what they think negotiation is?”

“Talking,” said one girl.

“OK,” said Sackey. Like what we’re doing now? Are we negotiating?”

“Talking out a problem.”

“Making a deal with somebody if you guys don’t want the same things.”

“Making a compromise,” said Diamond Washington, 13, a student at Penn Hills Charter School.

“Beautiful. Yes. All of these answers are amazing. You guys definitely hit the nail on the head, said Sackey, who then offered this definition:

“Negotiation is a method by which people settle differences. It is a process by which compromise or agreement is reached. Individuals involved in a negotiation are aiming to reach the best possible outcome for their position.”


According to “Research: Women Ask for Raises as Often as Men, but Are Less Likely to Get Them,” an article in the June 2018 edition of the “Harvard Business Review,” labor economists estimate that equally-qualified women are paid 10% to 20% less than men doing the same job.

The article said some women never negotiate their salaries or ask for a raise. Others do, but don’t get what they ask for. If a woman does not negotiate her salary upon graduation, she will lose an average of $7,000 the first year and make $650,000 to $1 million less over a 45-year career.

Rather than negotiate for themselves, “what happens typically with women, especially, is that we negotiate for other people,” Sackey said.

Ledford, who describes her life as “an array of negotiations, whether to build partnerships for work or strengthen personal relationships,” said “Speak Up!” challenges the dominant culture of what it means to be a girl.

“Girls can and should use their voice to advocate not just on behalf of things, places, people, and organizations they care for, but they should also be confident enough to challenge, ask, and get what they need for themselves in order to reach their full potential.

“Like learning a foreign language, when you learn to negotiate early in life, it becomes second nature. In teaching girls to negotiate, we are also teaching its value to their guardians, teachers, and other adults.”


Back at the podium, Sackey asks volunteers to read and role-play in a skit called “Cellphone Madness from the ‘Speak Up!’ manual.”

In this scenario, “Kayla” wants a cellphone, but she can’t afford one on her own. Also, she isn’t 18, so she can’t sign a contract. She needs to negotiate with her mother to get what she wants.

Photo credit @Robin DeNoma for Carnegie Mellon University.
Jaelle Simpson (right) plays the role of Kayla who negotiates to get a cell phone from her “mother,” played by Lorretta Sackey, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, who presented a Speak Up! workshop to students from the Gwen’s Girls program. The goal of the Speak Up! program, delivered by PROGRESS, a CMU organization that encourages students to become effective leaders, is to minimize wage and leadership gaps between men and women.

Before the first two volunteers come on stage to play “Kayla,” Sackey gives the group a list of things to consider before making, the ask:

-Think about your goal.

-Be clear about what you want (your position).

-Consider what you want and why (your interest)

-Consider your options (logrolling)

-Decide the minimum you are willing to accept (reservation value)

-Consider what happens if you don’t ask (best alternative to a negotiated agreement, BATNA)

Sackey plays the mother who is washing dishes when Kayla asks for a phone. While waiting for a chance to get on stage, girls shout out answers, ranging from threatening to put their siblings up for adoption to throwing a full-blown tantrum. They don’t get the phone.

On stage, a volunteer gives it a shot: “I need a phone. Give me a phone,” she said.

“Absolutely not,” said Sackey.

It’s a Lose-Lose outcome. No one gets what she wants. No one is happy. The desired outcome of negotiation is Win/Win. Both sides are happy with the result, and it is achieved fairly.

After a few more role-playing attempts, Olivia Battle, 12, from Gateway Middle School, takes a turn. Through Logrolling, where negotiators trade one thing for another, Olivia as “Kayla” offers to get high grades, do more chores, and save her allowance to pay for a phone.

Sackey as the mother agrees. Kayla will get a phone.


“We all need tools in our lives to kind of move us forward,” said Sackey. “Negotiation is a tool because if you can effectively negotiate with other people, you get more of what you want, and at the end of the day, who doesn’t want things?”

“What do you want?” Sackey asked the group.

“I want V-bucks,” said one girl, referring to the digital currency in the popular game “Fortnite.”

“Money? Yes. People always want money,” said Sackey. “As you get older, negotiating your salary is very important because you never want to be paid less than what you are worth.”

She told the group about the U.S. women’s soccer team. Despite winning 13 championships, there is still a huge wage gap between what the women and the men are paid.

“They are in the process of negotiating their salaries. They are trying to bridge that gap,” said Sackey.

Work is not the only place where negotiation skill can be used.

Katterin White, an assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at CMU used negotiation to get ahead in her education.

“I asked different colleges to review other colleges’ financial aid packages, just so I could get a little bit more money (and) make my college process a little bit more affordable.”

This tactic saved White $3,000. She also used negotiation to ask professors for an occasional extension on a project, extra credit, and internships. She even asked professors to connect her with job opportunities and to introduce her to their professional connections.

At Carnegie Mellon she learned about connecting with other people’s clients. “When I was looking for internship opportunities, research opportunities, or when I was ready to go into the workplace, maybe my professors didn’t have what I needed, but they were able to connect me with someone who did,” White said. “So having those connections was so very important when it came to really anything that dealt with my career and life profession. It was actually how I found this opportunity (as an assistant director of admissions).


You don’t have to wait to start negotiating, said Sackey. “Speak Up!” teaches students they need tools and skills that can equip them to make decisions, improve relationships, reduce conflict, and take more control over their lives. Being able to negotiate is one of those tools.

“Negotiation can help create positive options, and it helps us engage our own voice,” she said.

Students can practice negotiation with teachers, friends, parents, guardians, siblings, even roommates.

Photo credit @Robin DeNoma for Carnegie Mellon University.
Gwen’s Girls students, LilyAnne Ellis (left) and Skye Wright (right), negotiate to exchange school supplies, necklaces, mini passports, inspirational stickers, glow sticks, ribbons, bouncy balls, and puzzles during a Speak Up! workshop at Carnegie Mellon University. The goal of the Speak Up! program, delivered by PROGRESS, a CMU organization that encourages students to become effective leaders, is to minimize wage and leadership gaps between men and women.

Lily Ellis, 12, a sixth-grade student at Clairton Elementary School aspires to be an entrepreneur and veterinarian because she really likes pets, she said. She plans on using the skills she learned in the “Speak Up!” seminar to help achieve her goals.

“What I learned about negotiating is that as long as you say the right things, be polite, and earn your way into doing something that you want to do badly, then you could accomplish it,” Ellis said.

Ledford hopes all girls will learn how to use negotiation to navigate their lives.

“A failed negotiation is the one that you did not attempt,” she said. “In other words, if you don’t try, then you don’t know what you could be missing.”

Once you know your worth, you’re able to negotiate and ask for money when you need it, when you want it, said Sackey.

“The issue in this space is to let women know that they are worth it first and foremost. That’s the beauty of starting so early.”


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