Meet Michelle, a 27-year-old market research professional based in Michigan. After successfully creating a new role at her company, Michelle’s responsibilities expanded so much that the company decided to hire an additional employee to manage the workload. What happened next however, took her totally by surprise and inspired Michelle to start talking about her salary more openly with coworkers. Here’s our conversation (edited for length and clarity).
I had created this position at the company and it got to a point where I had expanded the role so much I was interviewing to hire someone to train and teach them everything I do.
HR had sent me their phone screener. They were going to be paying this guy $8,000 more than I was making.
It was an email attachment that they included by mistake. They said, we’re offering this much for the role. And I was like, “What? That’s more than I make.” I’m interviewing this guy, training him, I kind of just vibrated with anger.
I forwarded the email to my boss and said, “Well, what do I need to do to be making this much? Should I apply? Because I’m qualified. I made the role.”
They kind of were panicking. They’re like, “Well, we gotta talk to HR. We gotta see what’s up with this. They shouldn’t have sent you that.”
So then they hold these meetings with HR. They said I was throwing a shit fit. I wasn’t yelling, but I was clearly upset. And then they had a meeting with me and HR and they’re like, “You know, this was really for a different position”. And I was like, “No, no”.
They’re like, “Well, you don’t need to keep throwing shit fit about this”. And I was like, “Well, you’re screwing me over”.
Since then I’ve been really transparent with any of the other girls who come into the company. I tell them exactly how much I’m making.
If they want to negotiate something for themselves, I tell them, this is where I’m at. I don’t know if this will help you, or if this is gonna make you upset.
But I know they’ll pull things and if you don’t have that transparency it’s not going to help. You have to know how to negotiate for yourself.
I think it’s hard to walk the line of advocating for yourself and not being the “dramatic” girl, the “shit fit” girl. But the squeaky wheel gets the oil at the end of the day and that’s how I’ve kind of treated it.
I’ve talked to a couple of girls at the company who’ve been there longer than me, and they have been like, “I just have to work hard. I just have to prove myself”. And I’m like, “I do work hard. But no one advocates for you like you”.
I do feel like there is this more “male culture”, at my work and being a young woman, it feels like there’s a little bit of patronization. So I’ve actually recently joined the diversity and inclusion council. I work to fight for this stuff, but I’ve been the only girl in the meeting, being asked to take notes. Or they’ll call me like my male co-workers “counterpart”. I’m like my name is on the zoom call. So just subtle things like that. Those little microaggressions do add up. And it does have an indication with the culture at the company.
So I’ve been working on going through the HR manual. We actually got them to change it to “parental leave” instead of “short-term disability”. I got our workplace to add our pronouns to our email signatures. I think having little things become more commonplace will help.
I think something that we still struggle with is there’s a lot of white men in leadership. And until you get more diverse leadership, it doesn’t trickle down as much.
It feels like fighting up instead of letting the change come down.
Note from the editor: The ambition diaries are a collection of interviews with women who’ve experienced the ambition penalty. The ambition penalty speaks to the paradox at the heart of women’s empowerment. To close gender gaps in pay, wealth and leadership, women have been directed to “speak up, negotiate more, and take what they deserve” — overlooking how women are often penalized for doing those very things.
The ambition penalty helps explain why decades of educational gains and a lifetime of “empowerment” haven’t translated into corresponding gains for women in the workforce, in wealth or in leadership. Because it’s not that women aren’t negotiating or speaking up or working to get what they deserve, it’s that they’re doing so within a network of institutions that undermine and penalize them when they do. And it’s these conditions, not the behavior of women, that need more of our attention if we want to make meaningful progress on measures of equity.
Do you have a story to tell about how ambition has played out in your life — for better or for worse? Let us know in the comments.
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