Our Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.
Interested in sharing your Salary Path with us? Please fill out this form here and we will get back to you (can be posted anonymously like this one, too! 😉 ).
How much money do you make? That question likely triggers an emotional response. Pride or possibly shame, or maybe something in between. Regardless of your relationship with the answer to that question, you might think, "we're not supposed to discuss salaries. Isn't that in poor taste?" Maybe. But that's also part of the problem. The reluctance to discuss money, particularly amongst women and minorities, is precisely how we got here, where women earn on average 83 cents for every dollar made by a male. So the first big step toward pay parity is wage transparency.
Unfortunately, we rarely have control over external factors regarding income disclosure. Despite Colorado and Connecticut successfully rolling out wage transparency laws in 2021, a small handful of US states adopting these practices isn't helpful for most of the working world. The next best thing is to take wage transparency into our own hands. But easier said than done. Aside from a long history of social conditioning against sharing salaries, we often find it hard to divorce our self-worth and sense of success from that number.
In the spirit of transparency, I'll venture into vulnerable waters and walk through some of my most significant salaries, what they have (or haven't) meant to me, and how I ultimately unlearned how to relate to my salary.
Apples and Oranges.
Let's start at the beginning. My first salaried role. I was doing tech support earning $38,000 annually. This $38,000 defined the following few salaries and profoundly affected my view of myself and my relationship with my time. Most of my friend group had computer science degrees and earned upwards of $80,000 straight out of university. I knew that logically, there was no way I would ever make that doing tech support in a call center with a psych degree, so I got a part-time job. I didn't need the extra job, but I was so focused on upping that number even if it cost me the free time I desperately needed but didn't think I deserved. In my mind, my "low salary" was a punishable offense, so I treated passing on brunches because of weekend shifts like penance for my "unworthiness".
On the one hand, you could say that my friends' higher salaries motivated me, but in reality, it mostly made me upset. I was comparing apples and oranges. Plus, I didn't have savings goals or focused career ambitions – just dreams of a higher number to report when people asked how much I made (which was not often). So instead of focusing on turning my strengths and skills into better pay or a role with meaningful work, I was punishing myself for having a grueling job and not making more. And I alone suffered.
We'll skip ahead to my first raise. At this point, I had pivoted to a career in community-building and was loving it. After a year in the role, I earned a 13% bump, which put me at a salary of $55,000. This was a pretty big deal. 13% was practically unheard of, according to everyone I shared the news with. It felt like I had finally accomplished something. And that's when it started; income creep. Of course, I didn't notice it then, but you know what they say about hindsight. A better apartment. More lunches out during the week. So many clothes. I even quit my part-time gig. I had a job I loved and earned more money, so why shouldn't I have it all?
The problem (aside from my unchecked spending) was that I should have been earning more for my work, and I wasn't advocating for myself or negotiating. I accepted the numbers because they felt big and never questioned them. I didn't know any better, and I didn't have anything specific I was working toward, so I didn't do my research. In my defense, Community Management was just coming onto the scene as a viable career path, so the data wasn't really there. But that would soon change. In late 2019, I asked my manager to send me to a 3-day community-building conference where I was introduced to the community universe and started asking around about salaries. For the first time, I was comparing my salary in a good way. I wasn't trying to measure up against software engineers. While some of the responses to my salary question were shocking, even daunting, they ultimately catalyzed a revolution in how I viewed growing my salary.
It's pretty well cited that your income-to-happiness ratio stops changing dramatically after $75,000. I'd say that was more or less true for me. In the early days of the pandemic, I used the abundance of downtime to clarify my career goals and sharpen some skills; I even set a savings plan (Think magazine cutout vision boards). Then, just a year after attending the community conference, I signed on for a community role at a Fortune 500 company for $81,000. For the first time, I successfully negotiated in the offer stage. Not only did I bargain for a fair salary, but I arranged an extra week of vacation for myself. Having finally achieved a fair market rate, my salary suddenly didn't matter. So was my unrest around my career growth fueled by the sense that I wasn't being paid fairly? While I didn't work at a trendy Silicon Valley start-up or FAANG company, I enjoyed the work and was paid fairly for it. And that was that. Until it wasn't.
A year later, a coworker asked about my salary, and I proudly shared. Much to my surprise, they told me they were making over $15,000 more than me for a similar role and years of experience. So I went back to the drawing board to try and figure out how this could have happened. I had done the research, I negotiated, but it wasn't enough. So I made a move. Not because I was embarrassed that they were earning more. Because it wasn't equitable. And thanks to our mutual willingness to share, I had access to this information.
I had long ago said I wanted to earn six figures from one job before age thirty. Why? Probably because it sounded good. An arbitrary goal and an arbitrary deadline. So when I finally signed the offer for my first six-figure salary, $125,000, years ahead of schedule, I was surprised to find that nothing happened. There's no red carpet that gets rolled out. No ethereal glow about you. So I waited. I thought it would hit me when I received my first check, but still nothing. If anything, I was discouraged at how much was going away to taxes. The sense of accomplishment I was waiting to wash over me never came. So I moved on.
After a time, I found that my joy didn't come from my salary, and it never did. Instead, I delighted in having leveraged my focus into finding meaningful work building communities and creating content. And I was proud that I had negotiated for things that made my semi-nomadic lifestyle possible (option to work from anywhere in the world, flexible schedule, etc.). And people noticed. The ability to travel at my leisure and spend months in new places was something no salary could buy. And that's what I hung my success on going forward.
I am not a number. And neither are you. Now, when people ask about my salary, I'm happy to share, not because it's relatively high, but because it doesn't matter. Yes, I am speaking from an incredibly privileged position with a stable support system, no significant debt, and voluntarily childless. But trust me, on those late working nights, the number printed on your check won't be what keeps you going. So instead, negotiate beyond the decimal points. Fight for perks that support your chosen lifestyle. Live your life today, whatever you earn or whatever your title. Don't wait to be worthy. And if someone bucks up the courage to ask how much you make, tell them. It could make a world of difference for both of you.