How to Negotiate Budget Cuts and Unconscious Bias with Amy Auton-Smith

How to Negotiate Budget Cuts and Unconscious Bias with Amy Auton-Smith

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I met Amy Auton-Smith at Catalyst Conference in March 2019. She shared a salary negotiation story of how she successfully negotiated a win-win solution when the budget for her position was significantly reduced. I immediately knew I'd love to have her share both her negotiation story and the story of how she started her startup on the podcast. 

Amy is a long-term champion of equality and diversity. As CEO of FairFrame, she's working to bring cutting-edge tech and diversity and inclusion research outcomes together to help mitigate the effects of unconscious bias at work. Amy is passionate about helping employers and leaders everywhere to ensure that everyone can achieve their true potential at work.

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Full Episode Transcript

Hello! Welcome to Episode 61 of Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee. I am a leadership and negotiation coach and today I am really excited to share this interview with Amy Auton-Smith of

Amy is a long-term champion of equality and diversity and, as CEO of Fair Frame, she’s working to bring cutting-edge tech and diversity and inclusion research outcomes together to help mitigate the effects of unconscious bias at work.

Amy is passionate about helping employers and leaders everywhere to ensure that everyone can achieve their true potential at work.

I met Amy at the Catalyst Conference in New York City last month. She had a booth where she was showcasing her company, and the technology is really cool and interesting and you’ll hear more about that in the interview.

But, while we were talking, when I shared with her that I’m a negotiation coach, she shared this amazing story of how she negotiated her salary, her working arrangement when she was still working as an attorney. She was offered a great job with great pay and then, right before she was about to say yes, the pay was significantly reduced.

And so then she came up with a solution to the problem that made both sides happy and she was happy with the outcome. So I thought it was a great story. I wanted you to hear it from her and also to learn more about the really cool work that women are doing, women entrepreneurs are doing, to help mitigate the effects of unconscious bias at work.

So, without further ado, here’s the interview with Amy Auton-Smith. Enjoy.

Jamie: Hello, Amy!

Amy: Hi, Jamie. Nice to speak to you.

Jamie: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Before we dive into the questions, I’d love for you to tell us more about

Amy: So, is an early-stage startup based in New York which helps people to see the linguistics of unconscious bias, so how the way we express ourselves can indicate stereotyped ways of thinking. And then we also use our ability to surface unconscious bias and stereotype in writing to inform large-scale analytics for organizations. So we both help individuals to see, right there in the moment, how thinking processes can influence how we rate and appraise other people and we provide analytics for organizations on a large scale.

Jamie: Wow. This is really fascinating and I think people would find this kind of tool very useful and I know, for a lot of women, they encounter unconscious bias in the process of negotiating their careers and even their lives, you know.  And so, I’m curious, for you, what has been the biggest negotiation that had the most impact on your life and career?

Amy: Well, just on the first part, we get such a positive response from women when they see what FairFrame does and how it really helps people to see where stereotyped thinking creeps into everyday interactions. We’ve had so many women, especially senior women leaders go “Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve seen that before.”

I think for me one of the most notably interesting negotiations that I remember in relation to senior level positions was when I was applying for a leadership role and I’d been approached by the headhunter and I’d been given the specifications for the role, including the particular salary that was on offer, and I went through a very long selection process with multiple interviews including interviews with the chair of the company and the CEO and they indicated that they would like to make me a job offer but then the head of HR phoned me and, slightly apologetically, indicated that the salary for the role had changed and it had changed downwards quite dramatically.

So I inquired what was the reason for this and they said that the budget for the role had changed. So, at that point, I kind of was faced with a rather difficult situation because the role was one that I really wanted but the salary that was on offer was in no way attractive. So I took the information and said, “Okay, well, thank you very much. I’ll think about it,” and paused to reflect. My initial inclination was to say, “Okay, this is time wasting and they obviously don’t value the skills that I’m gonna bring to this role.” However, upon reflection, I thought, you know, maybe there is a budgetary element here and perhaps if I take them on face value, there might be an opening.

So I went back to them and I said “Well, the salary that you’re offering for the full-time role isn’t attractive but if you’d be interested in making the role part-time, I’m actually looking at starting some initiatives myself separately and I would be interested in a part-time role.” And I suggested that I work the equivalent of...the equivalent reduced number of hours to make the salary what they had originally suggested. And the head of HR took this away and very quickly came back and said that they’d love to proceed. So we turned what could have been, you know, quite a difficult situation to one where, in fact, in turned out better for me and I think for the organization as well.

Jamie: That’s wonderful! You know, this sort of thing happens more often than we’d like where you’re going for a position or an opportunity and the budget isn’t...and we’re like “Oh, this is great!” and then out of the blue somebody says “Oh, now we don’t have the budget.” So I really appreciate how you didn’t take it personally when the budget was cut. You didn’t make it mean something kind of negative about how they’re valuing you or undervaluing you and you were able to achieve a win-win situation where you got to take the job and have more time and get paid the appropriate amount of money. So, I’m curious, how did you go from there to starting FairFrame?

Amy: So I suppose perhaps my experience in that role did make me more attuned to actual variations in the workplace and, interestingly, for that particular workplace, my salary was quite helpful to them eventually when people did start querying the gender pay gap within the organization and, I suppose, fortunately for them, because they had me on this relatively high salary compared to a lot of other women in broadly similar roles in the organization, they were able to say that they were, you know,  not applying a blanket differential in how they paid their people but there was the suggestion that this might be the case.

So I started to become quite interested in the dynamics of gender equality in leadership. And I have a long history of being involved in relation to gender equality generally, particularly, I started out with human rights for women and girls and then became a sort of amateur active workplace champion in the way that quite a lot of people do.

So, a few years ago, I started to look at changing from my career focus of being an organizational attorney. So I was chief legal officer in my last role and I was looking at ways to become more active and more agentic in relation to delivering change on gender equality. So, at the time, I started to look for academic courses in gender, classes that I could take at universities in the UK and, at the same time, my partner was offered the chance to move to New York.

And I always said no to this before because moving overseas and a UK-specific legal qualification don’t tend to hang together super well but I saw an opportunity, so the deal was we would move to New York and I would have a period of time in which I could study for a Master’s degree in a gender or gender-parallel field so I actually...we moved to New York about four years ago and I went to NYU to do a degree in general management but with the option, which I took, to take several classes in organizational diversity and that kind of iterated...I originally assumed that I would look for some kind of role where I could either work in an organization that helped to foster an environment of diversity and inclusion or perhaps to take a leadership role in relation to that.

And then being part of the NYU ecosystem gave me access to such an amazing entrepreneurial environment and it sparked the thought that perhaps I could become an entrepreneur and, at the same time, I was doing a project with a large, multinational organization in which I’d seen the lack of resources available to people who wanted to be more effective on identifying issues of bias and stereotype but there’s very few products available to help people. So, putting the two things together - the environment and also my desire to foster a more active role in relation to diversity and inclusion - led me to have the idea for FairFrame and to start down the process of becoming an entrepreneur.

Jamie: Excellent! You know, the way you describe it, it’s like one thing led to another, another, and then, you know, here you are. And I gotta ask, was it a smooth ride?

Amy: When I first moved to the US having quit my legal career, that was a pretty anxious time because the legal profession in the UK is a very defined career track, so I had one of those, nowadays, pretty unusual resumes where every position was an increasing level of responsibility, etc., etc. And I had reached a very senior level. So then to, you know, as my late night subconscious thought processes phrased it, “throw everything away” to move overseas and potentially start again from scratch wasn’t easy and I did have a lot of nights when I lay awake wondering if I’d made a horrible mistake.

Jamie: Mmm. Yeah. I think a lot of the people who are listening would empathize because we want to create something new and audacious but there’s always that fear. And so what was the compelling vision for you to overcome, you know, those sleepless nights and doubt and all of that?

Amy: Well, fundamentally, I mean, I didn’t make this decision on a whim. So it was something that my partner and I looked at very carefully and we looked at whether it was affordable and doable and how it would fit into a long-term strategy and the risk was a pretty calculated one, to be honest. So, having the opportunity to come to the US and study at NYU is not something that is in itself a risky endeavor and there was always the possibility of returning to the UK and, you know,  perhaps going back into the same career track, so I think the unconscious level of all the sort of evenings, late nights level of worry was not proportionate to the actual risk. And the risk that we were taking was one that we thought through and assessed and what it did do, of course, is open up way more doors than the one door that I’d closed by, you know, stepping away from my legal career to explore this opportunity.

Jamie: Mmm. Yeah, so kind of taking a step back and thinking about the landscape, what do you think is possible for women? You know, especially women like you who want to become bolder, braver, and better paid? You know, unconscious bias exists, right, so what can women do to overcome the barriers?

Amy: Yeah and I think that’s a really simple-sounding question which actually has a very complex societal framework around it. So, frankly, one of the only reasons why I can even contemplate being an entrepreneur is because I have a partner who is able to support our family and our family’s expenses. So, you know, I’m not single and in my twenties with, you know, a lifestyle that doesn’t carry a lot of inherent cost. I think that is an interesting part of the startup environments and the ecosystem, which is the extent to which the doors are not in fact open to all entrepreneurs.

And one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the extent to which support is available to entrepreneurs know, working carries a cost. So, for example, if you have caring responsibilities and you need to travel or even be away from home for meetings, as soon as you have caring responsibilities, that isn’t a free activity. You have to pay someone to be there while you’re not and, for as long as entrepreneurs don’t have access to support in those early stages before businesses become revenue-generating and able to pay salaries, there is an extent to which the entrepreneurial ecosystem is gonna be a closed door. I think it will be very interesting for the VCs and the entrepreneurial support ecosystem to look at whether there is an interest in and whether there is an opportunity left on the table from entrepreneurs for whom working carries an actual cost.

I think, in terms of succeeding as a woman, being aware of the ways that unconscious bias and stereotype can play against you is probably good knowledge to have and then to be able to plot your route through despite the biases and the stereotype that might apply. So avoiding the kind of fix-the-woman approach, which tends to be quite prevalent in a lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives but also being aware that achieving an objective might require a more careful navigation than would be the case for, say, a man in a similar position.

Jamie: Mmm. So, what I’m gleaning from what you said is don’t assume that there is something wrong with you because you encounter an imperfect world.

Amy: No, absolutely. And I think the value that women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color bring to the entrepreneurial ecosystem is dramatically undervalued at this point and despite the higher [indecipherable] in some circumstances, I think having that determination and also not taking it personally are good attributes to have.

And, fundamentally, there are a lot of ideas out there that are not being looked at by huge swathes of the startup ecosystem, so if you have a good idea and you have belief in yourself, push through some of the resistance that you might encounter because chances are that resistance is based upon the other person’s prior experience and expectation, which almost necessarily because of the low participation of women and people of color and other minority entrepreneurs in that ecosystem, their experience is likely not to include how you look at things and what you can bring to the table. So, obviously, pay attention to advice that you receive along the way but also maybe don’t always pay too much attention to it. Keep that self-belief.

Jamie: Yeah, I love that. So don’t just fold or give in immediately when you encounter pushback, right? Because it might have nothing to do with you. It’s all about what they’re thinking and believing based on their past experience. And so, you know, your first story really exemplified that really well. You encountered a potential obstacle and you’re like no, you know, maybe we can still work with this and you found a great work-around solution.

So, I’m kind of curious, you know, from using....from your work with FairFrame, do you have any suggestions, like communication strategies that you would recommend in terms of how to respond to, you know, language that is...or perspective or pushback that comes from an unconscious bias point of view.

Amy: Yeah, and that’s a really interesting questions because I would look at it from the point of view of why should the person on the receiving end be the one who has to recalibrate the behavior? And I would say the way we should be looking at this is not how can someone help someone else to understand that their own perspective and experiences might be different. Take that burden off the women and underrepresented people and actually ask those in positions of decision-making power to be more self-aware and conscious about people’s different lived experiences.

Having said that, if you are in an experience or a workplace where that level of sophistication in the levels above you or around you isn’t present...yeah, calling out behaviors can be helpful but also frequently can be tricky, so I think looking for the work-around and finding the allies, finding the supporters, finding the mentors is going to be key.

And I think, especially in the workplace, a lot of workplaces now are taking this a lot more seriously than has previously been the case so there might even be opportunities where, if the support is not available to you, actually there might be a door open somewhere for you to take a lead in saying, hey, we need this and it’s more than just me, there’s whole ways in which we as an organization can do better and see if those doors might open. But, yeah, fundamentally, it is a difficult paradigm to negotiate and there is a well-known backlash effect as well for raising things and raising things in certain ways and then that’s unfortunate.

Jamie: Well, let me ask you this: what would constitute, you know, communication that reflects unconscious bias? What’s something that gets flagged over and over again in your work with FairFrame?

Amy: So we, because we’re looking at the linguistics of bias, I’m connected in to quite a few people who are researching this at the moment and also starting to use some really interesting technology techniques to identify linguistic text for bias. So FairFrame combines a machine learning approach with also a social science-based approach. So we’ve gone through vast quantities of research to identify the linguistic tags of stereotype and bias that have previously been identified by researchers and what’s super exciting for us is people in the ecosystem that we’re interacting with have been really inspired to look at this as a source of study and obviously, this is happening elsewhere as well.

And we see...I got sent today, in fact, two pieces of research by someone that we’ve been talking to about the linguistics of bias and how, you know, the way that we think is reflected in the way we express ourselves. So classic examples would be, you know, think of the way things like the word “abrasive” and I mean this is a fairly well-known example which you would hope is still not being used but, you know, whenever we mention the word “abrasive,” senior women shake their head and say, ugh, I’ve seen this over and over again.

So changing from a description of “abrasive” to maybe “assertive” or “has direct communications skills” or “has a direct communication style” and asking managers to be aware that if you’re using this word and you’re using it for a women, that this is word that is dramatically more likely to be used for women and it carries a stereotype and a bias load, so rephrasing yourself and readjusting your thinking onto whether what you characterize as abrasive in this person in front of you might actually be just a very direct communication style when your personal expectation of them is that they are, maybe, warm and perhaps caring in how they present to other people but those attributes wouldn’t be expected uniformly across the peer group.

So just prompting that thought process: am I applying the same standards to this person in front of me as I would apply to others from a different group? And if the answer is maybe or no then it’s probably time to readjust your thinking and how you’re appraising this person in front of you.

Jamie: Yeah and I think when you say that, you really, you know, touch on both the opportunity and the challenge of addressing bias because it’s so deeply ingrained in how people think and somebody who says oh, that Cheryl is so shrill and abrasive…

Amy: Right.

Jamie: They’re just making an observation and not realize that they’re making a choice, an unconscious choice to see this person as problematic, not...rather than appreciating her directness. So, yeah, I appreciate that. Thank you. Well, you know, your work is so fascinating and I think it’s valuable. Where can people go to learn more about the work you do?

Amy: So, we’re still very early-stage and we haven’t launched a public-facing product yet so we’re working with some large organizations to refine and calibrate how we present this information to managers and also how we present the analytics in a dashboard format, so there’s, which is our company’s landing page, and then keep an eye out on LinkedIn, so I’m always happy to connect with people who want to see what’s going up on LinkedIn and I always post a selection of interesting snippets from the diversity and inclusion community, particularly ones related to linguistics and how we can be more effective and in the moment about the management of our own stereotypes and bias.

And I do want to be very clear about one thing right here, which is it can often come across as thought, when we talk about rating and appraising people in the workplace, we’re just talking about men rating women but one thing to be really clear about is stereotype and bias that focuses on gender attributes is something that is common to both men and women in the workplace.

So just to highlight, when I talk about a manager looking at a person in front of them, it’s not always the case that that manager is going to be a man. And these ways of thinking that we have are common across most human beings, so just to emphasize that there are ways in which all of us can become better at becoming more objective in our appraisal of others in the workplace.

And the key factor here, of course, is the ones who are less likely to benefit from stereotypes, positive or negative stereotypes, are women and groups that tend to be underrepresented as you move further up an organization. So everyone who’s in decision-making positions or positions of leadership, I would say it is a useful exercise to consider whether our own thought processes might be inadvertently blinding us to positive attributes in people in front of us.

And they’re a little discredited in some circles but there’s a really interesting little test you can do online called the Implicit Association Tests and these have been running for a very long time and they’re quite straightforward. What they do is ask people taking the test to correlate, for example, certain words with, for example, work or family. And the speed with which you can correlate, say, a feminine word or idea with family versus a feminine word or idea with work can indicate how easily your brain processes these and whether there’s a match or a mismatch in your unconscious processing. And I’ve taken these tests and it is really fascinating to just feel that slight hesitation sometimes when you’re trying to correlate something where your brain is saying, you know, men and career, women and family and then to try and switch round. And it was very interesting for me to take these tests because, despite my close engagement with diversity and inclusion, you know, it really brought home to me that my thought processes follow quite a stereotypical pattern until I self-correct.

Jamie: Mm-hmm.

Amy: To overlay that conscious level of processing information which is, of course, where that’s a decision-making and more objective decision-making arises.

Jamie: Yeah, I’ve taken the Harvard Implicit Bias test many years ago and I found out I was rather biased, more biased than I would like.

Amy: [laughs]

Jamie: And, you know, now that I work as a coach and I really help people shift their mindset, it’s all in the brain, right? The habits of your brain, the neural pathways that have been strengthened by practice. In other words, your just patterns of thinking over and over again and often these patterns are unconscious, it’s at the root of unconscious bias.

Amy: Definitely, yes.

Jamie: Yeah. It takes practice. It can be sometimes painful to realize that what you think to be true is not necessarily true. What we think is an observation and what we think is objective and when you say oh, that boss is terrible and these people hate me or this person has an agenda against me, you think you’re being objective but then you realize this is all opinions. Yeah, so…

Amy: It’s an incredibly’s an incredibly difficult for human beings to be genuinely objective and one of...Google has looked at this quite a lot and I was flicking through the Google re:Work suite of documentation and they highlight some research that shows the human brain has assessed by neuroscience researchers to process something like 11 million bits of information at any one time, of which we’re processing 40 consciously so, but sort of you know, 99.9996% unconscious in how we process the world around us.

And in the context of a busy workplace, particularly doing something that we feel we’ve got skills in and that we’ve been doing for many years, it’s exceptionally difficult to step out of those patterns of thinking, which is why I really hope that FairFrame will make a difference just in giving that in-the-moment prompt and that behavioral nudge, if you like, to apply a diversity thinking mindset rather than a pre-programmed thought process which is making those unconscious assumptions and decisions.

Jamie: Yeah. You’re doing really awesome work. Well, thank you so much Amy for your valuable time, your expertise and this great business that’s going to remind us more of our own unconscious thinking so that we can correct it and think more consciously and create better businesses and diversity in the world.

Amy: Jamie, it’s been a pleasure and thank you so much for your work in giving people voices and some interesting things to think about. It’s been great to meet you.

Jamie: Alright. Have a good one!

Amy: Thank you, and to you!

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