"You're a woman in a male-dominated field, you should feel lucky to have a job. You should want to do this for free."
This statement was directed at me over 10 years ago. While a lot of time has passed since then, and many things have changed in my career, that moment, continues to impact me and those words continue to echo in my mind.
As a career coach who specializes in helping women, I often hear appalling stories of misogynist workplace cultures and horrible bosses.
Naturally, when I hear these stories, I think about my own.
I return to a time when I was a highly-motivated, 20-something new graduate and had the blissful audacity to believe that I could take on the world.
I also remember the exact moment I was slammed with the soul-crushing realization that everything I prided myself on - intelligence, ambition, and a drive to succeed - may not be enough.
As a new graduate who had landed a job in my field, right out of school, I felt lucky and emboldened. It was a dream come true; getting that “we’d like to offer you a position” phone call was exhilarating.
I felt like I had already won the career game. But, oh boy, if I only new what that world had in store for me.
Now, this job I accepted, was pretty grueling. I had already interned in this industry and I expected it to be hard work (like, really hard work). I expected long days, I expected to work on-call, I expected a minuscule paycheck, and I even expected that I would need a part-time side-gig to maintain my bills and student loan payments.
But, I viewed this job as my launching pad. I knew I would gain the experience, skills, and talent, that would eventually lead to better opportunities.
And, I was right. Just around the 1-year mark, I got promoted. My predecessor accepted another job elsewhere and recommended me for his role. Amazing, right? This is just what I thought could happen–if I kept my head down and worked harder and did more than anyone else, eventually, I would be recognized.
Obviously, I accepted the promotion.
But, months went by with me working in this new role, without any kind of salary increase to compensate me for the even longer hours I now worked (so much longer, I had to sacrifice my side job).
Ultimately, I was now making less money. Of course, my financial situation is not the company’s responsibility, but providing a wage commensurate with the demands of a position is the company’s responsibility.
I knew what I had to do; I had to ask for a raise.
My predecessor had earned significantly more than me, but I also knew asking for the same wage would be completely unreasonable. I just wanted a small bump-up, a small show of confidence, a small indication that I was valued more now, in my new role, than I was in my previous, entry-level job.
Remember when I told you I thought I could take on the world? It didn’t even cross my mind that I would be turned down for a salary increase as I marched over to my boss’s office. I knocked on the door, stood-up straight, and asked for a minute of his time. I sat down in the uncomfortable wooden chair in front of his desk, and pried my eyes off the ugly, worn carpet to meet my boss’s gaze.
I was prepared. I had practiced my key points over and over in front of my bathroom mirror. Despite my heart pounding and my hands getting clammy, I managed to keep my voice from quavering. When I said, “I feel I should be compensated for the extra hours and the extra work I’m now producing”, my boss actually looked insulted.
You know what’s coming, right? His gem of a response:
"You're a woman in a male dominated field, you should feel lucky to have a job. You should want to do this for free."
I was in the room when these words were spoken, but I still can’t believe it really happened. Now, in my late-30’s, I want so badly to go back in time to protect my younger self, to walk into that room with her, and put that jerk in his place.
He made me feel worthless. He made me feel disposable. He made me feel like an entitled, ungrateful bitch.
The saddest part of this for me, is that I stayed in that job. I was stubbornly determined to win and to get what I deserved. I still believed that if I just tried a little harder, my value would be realized. Of course, it wasn’t. It took almost another year for me to finally pull the plug.
While this is my story, it’s not terribly original. Most women I speak with have a similar tale to tell.
Despite these real-life accounts that depict the reality of the workplace for women, I continue to read and hear denials about gender disparity. I’ve encountered comments like “the wage gap isn’t real because women take maternity leave” or “women just don’t ask for raises” or “this is 2017, women have the same ability to be promoted as men”.
These claims about women in the workplace, obviously, are completely false. Here are the facts: