Grit, Grace & Your Paycheck

Oprah Winfrey interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama at the United States of Women Summit, you can find the interview here. The conversation was full of colorful personal anecdotes and insights from each of their personal experiences, and guidance for women in their relationships and careers. Mrs. Obama, may be most famously known for her position as First Lady and wife of the 44th President of the United States of America, but before the White House she was making waves in her own right, professionally.

You probably know that she graduated from Princeton, with a major in Sociology and African-American studies, or that she also graduated from Harvard Law School. You probably also know that she worked for a well-reputed law firm in Chicago, that in 2016 was ranked as the best in two categories by U.S. News & World Reports. You may be less familiar with the fact that the she served as Associate Commissioner of Planning & Community Development for the City of Chicago. If you’re an Americorps alum, like I am, you might know that Mrs. Obama was the founding Executive Director of Chicago’s Public Allies, an Americorps program. You might not know that she was a university Associate Dean of Student Services, and oh yeah a VICE PRESIDENT at Chicago Medical Center.

So, in this interview with Oprah, the presiding empress of media, I was listening for career nuggets of wisdom. Mrs. Obama told a story where she brought one of her daughters to a job interview. She describes changing from full-time to part-time work, to try and accommodate the demands of her personal and professional life. After making the transition to part-time, she realized that part-time work had the same demands as her full-time job, but with less pay.

Then she says,“I had vowed, that if I continued to work, I would never settle for part-time. I knew what my time and energy was worth. So, when I went into the [Chicago Medical Center] President’s office to interview for that job, I thought, ‘I have a little baby, I don’t have babysitting, so here we go. We’re all going to go in and see the President, because this is who I am.’ And I said, ‘If I take this job, I’m going to need flexibility and I need full pay. So, if you want me to leave my baby and my kids, then you’re going to have to pay me, because I’m going to do the job.’ That was never a question, you know I could deliver, I wasn’t — I knew then that I wasn’t going to sell myself short…”

I am no finance expert, but I think now is a perfect time for a brief tangent into the world of finance. In finance, short-selling, is when someone borrows shares that they anticipate will go down in value. Then the person will sell the shares quickly, hoping that they can buy the shares back at less than what they paid, pocket the difference and return the shares to the actual owner. In short (pun-intended): Short-selling is based on the premise that what you possess is of low value. Okay, now back to Mrs. Obama.

She made a decision in a negotiation for salary and compensation, to assert her ability to do the job well, and also advocate for needs, based on her confidence in her value. Now, as she states in the interview, she knew she had the leverage at that point in her career to negotiate that way. However, it brings up the important role of salary negotiation and its critical role for women, to achieve full and fair pay.

There’s a lot to be said about the grit and grace (I heard your Meryl Streep.) that it takes for women to prosper in the workplace. (I would add: a dogged resilience, demonstration of competence, critical decision-making, allies, mentorship in high places and even legislation.)

In an effort to achieve equal pay for women, the U.S. State of Massachuessetts just passed a law making it illegal for an employer to ask you for your previous salary. The law will go into effect in 2018. In an NPR interview, Victoria Budson, the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government explained the compounding impact of being underpaid in your first job, “This is such an important piece of the Pay Equity Bill…If each subsequent salary is really bench marked to that [first underpaid job], then what can happen is that type of usually implicit, and occasionally explicit, discrimination really then follows that person throughout their career.”

There are some people who don’t believe that pay differences are based on gender inequality. Whether intentional or not, there are studies that indicate that gender bias plays a role in salary offers. The Freakonomics Podcast breaks down much of the history here.

So, that begs the question: If there is implicit and explicit bias in pay for women, and also for minorities, what about the combined impact on black women?

The common, and dare I say logical, line of thought is that higher paying jobs are the results of selecting a relatively high-paying field and achieving higher levels of education. There is also access and networks, but another day for that. A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, stated that black women in the United States earned the highest percentage of Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees conferred from 2009 to 2010. According to Dr. Deborah Ashton, in this 2014 Harvard Business Review article, black women are in last place for earnings at every level of education. A recent report and article by the AAUW shared similarly disparaging statistics, but noted that part of the gender pay gap with black women was associated with black women having less of a presence in high-paying jobs. This has been attributed to many things including unfair hiring practices and hardships in work environments.

It also includes lack of exposure and knowledge of high-paying fields in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

But, if you are not in, or in to, STEM, you are black, and a woman, and hard working and you want to be paid fairly for your work — what do you do?

Maybe your career will take you down the path of pioneering for fair pay by becoming a government policy maker or legislator. You may be a rockstar in entrepreneurship and choose to set the standard of compensation in your own organization. If you are not there yet, and you are early or mid-level in your career, I think its important to take a note from Mrs. Obama’s lesson: do your work well, know your worth and negotiate with confidence. That’s a noble start.

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