If the wave of college graduations this time of year has you wishing you knew then what you know now about money, then you might be a little jealous of the University of Minnesota’s Class of 2017. The students received an entertaining crash-course in salary negotiation from commencement speaker Maria Bamford — the self-proclaimed “money-grubbing comedian from Duluth” and creator of Netflix’s "Lady Dynamite."
Bamford, who graduated from the university with a degree in creative writing, spent much of her 11-minute speech revealing exactly how she negotiated her fee for giving it. When the College of Liberal Arts first emailed her about the gig, they conceded that commencement speakers are typically unpaid, since “as a state-funded institution, we have to be careful regarding the use of our resources.” Bamford responded as a freelancer conscious of what her time is worth: “But I am a self-funded institution who has to be careful regarding the use of my resources,” she said to herself. “Was my alma mater lowballing me? … [Were they] suggesting that I couldn’t get paid for the exact job I paid them to teach me how to get paid to do?”
Bamford sought the help of her “business manager,” a 79 year-old West Milwaukee aluminum-siding salesman (also the father of a close friend), who told her to “never say no without a number.” Bamford named her price: $20,000. The University “went dark,” responding two weeks later with a counter-offer of $10,000, which Bamford somewhat regretfully admitted she failed to further negotiate.
To offer a lesson in the disappointing adult reality of take-home pay, Bamford revealed that, after taxes and commissions, she pocketed only $5,000 for her appearance. (“Gross is the disgusting amount of money you will never receive. Net is the little bag that you get to take home.”)
She concluded by handing her check over to a Theater Arts grad with debt who she singled out in the audience, implying that, as these students enter the real world, they’ll need to learn to ask for a raise. “I could have given you more,” she admitted, “but I did not negotiate for myself a higher salary.”
Bamford’s transparency (“I love money … I love disclosure”) is part of a growing trend of female writers and actors opening up about compensation in an effort to address the gender pay gap. In October 2015, Jennifer Lawrence, the world’s highest paid actress, ignited a media frenzy when she wrote an impassioned response to discovering her male co-stars in "American Hustle" received a 9% cut of profits while she and Amy Adams received only 7%. Similarly, "Wild" author Cheryl Strayed has been forthcoming about the $100,000 advance she received for debut novel "Torch," noting that it was an unusually high one, while also outlining the exact amounts she relinquished in taxes and agent fees.
Advocates of salary transparency extol its many benefits — like the potential to reduce gender bias and increase employee productivity — and a crop of organizations are catching on to the trend. But whether or not disclosure is your style, you can still take Bamford’s advice to heart: If you’re accepting a job offer, or it’s time for a raise, negotiate for what you deserve.