Meet Lindsey, a New Jersey based 32-year-old with a career in film and television distribution and production. After being hired for an entry level role at $10/hour, Lindsey found herself tasked with a growing list of responsibilities, especially as her colleagues in more senior positions left the company. But just two weeks after negotiating a raise to reflect her new responsibilities, Lindsey was let go. Here’s our conversation edited for length and clarity.
I was working in film distribution at a small indie film company and I had been given a lot of tasks to do that were really out of the entry-level. I was only being offered $10 an hour for doing work that was pretty much managerial. The heads of the company had left and I was pretty much heading two departments at that point, plus managing the office. So I talked with my boss about why I should get this raise. And he was agreeing with me.
I got him up to $19 an hour. I still wanted a little more than that, but I really was trying not to push my luck. It was such a confusing situation of me going from an intern into heading two different areas. I got him up to $19 an hour, which was just shy of $40,000 a year before taxes. And we were set on it. We were fine.
And I remember the first paycheck, I remember his wife must have been in charge of some stuff with the money and she said to me, “Why are you getting this much money?” I had told her that we negotiated my raise now that two people had left and I was taking on a lot more work. And it was about two weeks after that I was called in early in the morning. He didn’t even just come out and say it, I had to guess.
He was going on and on about how your work colleagues become your family and It’s horrible when you have to let your family down.
And I remember while he was talking, I said, “Oh, you’re firing me right now?” And he was like, “Not firing, laying off.”
I asked him what it was I had done wrong and he said nothing. That I didn’t do anything wrong.
But there was some tension between me and the head of social media marketing there. It’s almost like he, the head of social media marketing, thought that I was an intern. And as soon as I negotiated my raise and was being given a lot more stuff to do, he had like a total breakdown.
I was actually starting to have things taken away from me slowly when it came to him. I remember I had used to be on conference calls with everybody. And then I was on a conference call and I was told not to speak. Almost to act like I wasn’t on the call, even though these were filmmakers that I had been working with directly and spoken to directly multiple times. And I remember on one call I did speak and say something. And after we got off I was reprimanded. I told you not to speak. It was getting very toxic.
As soon as I negotiated a raise everything was getting toxic and bad. And then I was let go.
When I was being given more responsibilities and taking on more tasks that is when he started having a problem with me. He didn’t want to be told what to do by me at all. It was a very offensive thing for him. And the owner was telling me everything that he was saying about me all the time.
He had said that he didn’t need to listen to me because he was a grown ass man and he wasn’t going to take direction from an intern (I was not an intern). And that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for the company. And I remember thinking like, What is he, Steven Spielberg?
I loved the process of watching films and taking them on and everything that came with that, but I’m not sure I’m ever going back because even though I love it, it’s my passion to work in film, I can’t afford to not make any money. I don’t have a trust fund waiting for me somewhere. My parents are not going to support me until I’m 50.
Growing up I always had big ambitions. I wanted to be like a doctor or I wanted to be a lawyer, but I would often be sort of put into my place.
Like I remember a family member that I really looked up to a lot who was professionally successful at the time – If I said, “Oh, I want to be a lawyer.” They would be like, “Well, make sure you just graduate high school first.”
I remember when I had realized that I wanted to work in film, one of my family members, also that I was really close with was like, “Maybe you should pick something a little more realistic. Why don’t you just become a secretary?”
And there’s nothing wrong with being a secretary, but I didn’t want to be a secretary. And that has some weird sexist connotations.
So after the job in film and trying so, so hard to become something that I wanted to be like a professional career woman – you know, New York, working in film and then LA – and then feeling very beaten down, I felt extremely defeated for years. I’m still nervous. So I hope to push through in the future.
I actually just started working with a therapist again and she said that I have a ton of imposter syndrome. And I do, because look at what happens when you’re working in an industry and you are trying your best and working your hardest and you’re just constantly kicked. You feel like, oh, I don’t deserve to be here.
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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