Do You Really Know What You Are Worth?
For my entire career I have been a woman who works in a predominantly male industry. I have been lucky in that my brushes with impropriety have been minimal (not sure minimal is even acceptable, but that’s for a different post) and my job satisfaction has been consistently high. I take great pleasure from contributing and owning my tasks which works well with management expectations. There is however one thing that I have struggled with throughout my career: negotiating compensation.
Out of college, I took a co-op position with a tech company as a lab technologist and was overwhelmed by the caliber of professionals I was working with. From the onset, I was intimidated. Not only did I know that I needed to prove myself as a Technologist within a sea of experienced Engineers, but also as a woman working side by side with mostly men. My starting salary was reflective of my lack of experience, but I accepted it, and was happy to be able to work with such a strong team. The company eventually shut down operations in favor of cheaper talent overseas and many of my coworkers migrated to other tech firms doing similar work. I was fortunate to land a job with some of my former team members, but my entry level salary followed me. In fact, this happened a third time with many of the same people just a different executive team and letter head. All of these changes and mergers came with rounds of layoffs, but I managed to steer clear of the chopping block. The saddest part was I had assumed my luck in staying employed was likely because I was the cheapest team member, not because of my actual value.
Fast forward a couple of years, I moved cities and companies and was finally provided an opportunity to increase my entry wage. When the time came to negotiate salary during my interview I gave a range that was probably 15-20K lower than I should have. Prior to the interview, a friend had asked if I would work at this company for the same amount I had been making. My answer was unfortunately yes due a great deal to geographical motivations, and the company offered me the lower range. At this point I had no idea how to go about negotiating my salary and felt at risk of losing out on the position. Again, I was proud to work with a great team and figured the salary would adjust to reflect my performance.
Sadly, this would not be the case. In fact, it was brought to my attention by a well meaning manager leaving the company that I was in fact grossly underpaid. “You need to not be afraid of making money.” Those were his exact words. I had no idea what to do.
I went to College and University and never once was there a discussion about how to negotiate your compensation with an employer. To me, I was happy to be sitting at the table, and willing to accept what I was given. Why was that? How have I not valued my skills, and seen myself as an asset to fight for what I am worth? Two things were stacked against me:
I AM NOT AN ENGINEER
This fact has been something made glaringly clear to me on a number of occasions. I’ve even known of an iron ring or two being presented as a means of ending a conversation (super unprofessional). I have never pretended to be an Engineer, a Technologist has a much broader, higher level, view required for technology integration (which I am really good at) and is necessary in all systems, but there is a hierarchy in the minds of some people and this has contributed to my lesser view of my worth participating within a technology landscape.
I AM NOT A MAN
You have no idea how other people see you until you have been subjected to a shockingly patronizing conversation. Some (not all) men on first blush just assume I know nothing about technology and am not really interested in getting my hands dirty; this is the apex of insulting to me. I can actually recall a male colleague scoffing after being paired with me on a site visit that required removing a number of systems, making hardware modifications, and acquiring status and log files. He left me in the room we were assigned while he went off complaining about how much work he was going to have to do (presumably because of me). When he came back I made sure the unit was down and opened and ready to go which for some reason blew his mind. Why should I have to prove my value? Had I been a guy would he have said a word?
Beyond these realities it took me some time to realize what my strengths actually are and how I see my own professional value.
JUST BECAUSE I HAVE THINGS TO LEARN FROM OTHERS AROUND ME DOES NOT MEAN I CANNOT CONTRIBUTE IN A HUGE WAY
Your employer will not be expecting you to know exactly what you need to do the second you enter the building. In fact, the people on my current team are amazing, not because they know everything, but because they know who they need to go to when they need insight or assistance.
BEING VULNERABLE DOES NOT MEAN BEING A WEAK LINK
I would propose the opposite is true. Knowing who you need to go to for what you need has to be followed promptly by “and is not afraid to ask.” Figuring out what I need to know to get my job done is priority one in completing any task and if someone else can help direct me or offer information or feedback in some way, then I’ll be seeking them out. Be sure to return the favor.
OWNING YOUR MISTAKES AND TOUGH CALLS GAINS YOU FAR MORE CREDIBILITY THAN DENYING THEM
Everybody makes mistakes. Taking responsibility for them in order to move forward says loads about your character. Sure I've had to own some not great moments in my career, but I have always felt honesty overrules pride. I've seen some really smart people do stupid things when mistakes happen in the form of denial and even outright lies in order to lessen the intensity of their participation. If no one owns it, everyone owns it and that's really hard to recover from. Just be sure you are not making the same mistakes over and over.
These were all things that made me believe I had no right to ask for or expect higher compensation. The irony is that I would now have no problem explaining my value because it is the things that I thought held me back that make me worth investing in. So has my compensation caught up to me yet? I've had some adjustments over the years but they were never negotiated only offered. It feels like enough, but under what conditions and in what context do you pursue more even if what you have might seem reasonable to some? Is enough less than what you deserve? I'm still working on that one.
Be sure to check out an upcoming podcast on tips and advice on salary, compensation, and how to have the conversation to ask for what you deserve.