I was in Madrid when the Jill Abramson story broke. I didn’t intend to write anything about it. What more was there to say? And I just don’t feel like writing against things anymore. (That’s a large part of why I left academia: I wanted to use my critical thinking skills to help build up people and ideas, rather than to tear down arguments in three seconds flat.) But an idea did emerge: to write an op-ed essay building on something else I had been playing around with. I had been thinking about how I might use my coaching client stories as Oliver Sacks-style case studies in order to take up larger issues of women and culture. I saw that my recent experience with a client successfully getting her outsized raise was an excellent foil for the Abramson story. I wrote this op-ed essay in a few days, with great clarity and pleasure. The Austin-American Statesman ran it in the Sunday “Viewpoints” section on June 8. It’s behind their paywall, so I’m sharing it here in full:
We may never know for sure whether the dismissal of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times was related to her reported request for equal pay, but that’s how the story has already been absorbed into our gender folklore. And the moral of that story? “Even if you’re a woman who has made it to the top of your profession, don’t expect to be offered equal pay. And if you ask for equal pay, you risk losing it all.”
I’m as indignant as the next feminist. I want Abramson’s experience to stand front and center as one more reason why Congress needs to enact strong Equal Pay legislation. And yet, as a career/executive coach for women, I have a more grassroots concern: that women will misconstrue this cautionary tale as a reason to settle for less. Being a woman means having to argue the case for your worth every step of the way (while the worth of your male colleague is assumed). Making that case takes time, energy, and vigilance. What woman is likely to bother if she thinks she’s doomed to lose?
So I want to offer a counter-narrative. It’s a story about one brave young woman and two smart businessmen, and it has a happy ending for all.
“Deidre” (a pseudonym) is a software engineer in her late 20s. A year and a half ago she left her large, blue-chip employer and joined a smaller, rapidly growing e-commerce company as a technical consultant. She had “fallen in love” with the new company and met with quick success. Her project for a major retailer’s outlet store website was such a winner that it not only earned her company more work on the client’s main website but attracted new clients as well.
When she contacted me in February to prepare for her annual review, Deidre understood that she was at a crossroads. “I am about to turn 30, and I am anxious about my future. I am most concerned about my salary and the fact that it’s so low right now.”
She admitted flat out that she had made a strategic error when accepting her job offer. “I made the rookie mistake of setting my salary range too low. They matched my upper limit with no negotiations.”
The annual review went well, and she waited for the results. By April she was given a promotion, a prestigious award, a high-profile project to run, and a bump in base salary from $82 to $91k.
All great news, yes, but Deidre had done her homework. The competitive market rate for her new title ranged from $120 to $135.
When Deidre pointed this out, she was offered the opportunity to meet with her boss and his boss, in order to discuss her salary. So we went to work preparing: no emotional language; stay neutral, polite, and firm; be positive about wanting to stay with the company; stick to the documented data; stay focused on base salary; don’t over-talk it; state clearly what you want and let them solve the problem. We rehearsed responses to every possible push-back, and we even discussed what her next career steps might be. Despite her nervousness, despite her mother’s warnings not to rock the boat, despite the possible loss of work and a workplace she valued, Deidre stood up for her worth. She made her case.
A few days later, I heard from her via email: “It went well!!! Basically my second line manager agreed with me and said he would take it to HR to see what he could do. No hard questions, no resistance.” And here’s the kicker: “He said he wanted to keep me and appreciated me coming forward and letting them know instead of just leaving.”
A few days after that, the final update: “They just gave me the good news. My new base salary is $127k. I am literally speechless. Incredible. I finally found a company where I love the work and I am getting paid competitively.”
Until that day when Equal Pay legislation guarantees protection under the law, women will be better served to take their lead from a success story like Deidre’s than a cautionary tale like Abramson’s.
© 2014 Ann Daly