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, too! 😉 ).
In 1990, armed with a master’s degree in public policy, I got my first job at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).
However, I soon realized I had been hired at a lower grade than my qualifications warranted – a General Schedule (GS) level 7 when I deserved a level 9 due to my degree.
I simply asked my supervisor to be re-qualified for GS-9, and my salary took a significant leap. Back then, a GS-9 Step 1 qualified for a salary of $25,000 which in 2023, the same level pays $49,000.
After a year of running the award-winning risk-based planning initiative, I was promoted to GS-11, instead of progressing to GS-9 Step 2. I was earning about $29,000 ($59,000 in 2023).
My career took a unique turn when I transitioned to a GS-12 position as Regional Climate Change Coordinator in Chicago. It was an engineering position, which sealed my career path of being technical with a degree in social sciences.
A year later, I went on an 18-month detail to develop an emissions trading system with the Houston metropolitan planning organization. Though that meant I couldn’t move upward from the $40,000 salary associated with GS-12, it was a tremendous opportunity to be on the leading edge of regulatory policy and my particular interest.
At the end of my detail, I was hired at a national program office in North Carolina to manage a 50-state program at GS-13, but this was short-lived as personal circumstances prompted me to resign and move back to Houston. My salary was $49,000 ($85,000 in 2023).
Exploring the world of environmental consulting
In 1995, I worked as a Senior Consultant at KPMG in the nascent environmental practice in Houston. They hired me for $50,000, which was actually a pay cut because I had fewer benefits.
I then took another environmental consulting job for a year doing engineering-type work for an oil and gas boutique firm at $55,000 (about $94,000 in 2021 dollars). I loathed environmental consulting in Houston because of the minimal compliance mindset and the lack of engagement.
Making a lateral move
Rather than continue to work in the environmental industry in a location hostile to it, I intentionally took a high-visibility job to transition to a different sector. This is where my University of Chicago graduate training made a difference in getting hired.
At the Chamber of Commerce division of the Greater Houston Partnership, I was the program manager of Education Policy and Workforce Programs and earned $50,000. After my one-year review, I was bumped up to $54,000.
The lateral move in salary paid off. I worked with several c-suite individuals, a few of them closely – all men, most of them 20-25 years older than me. I had my son at this job and hid my pregnancy as much as possible. I took the 3-week maternity leave I was given but coordinated my program work remotely, unofficially in the third week.
When I was ready to leave after two-plus years, I had many options. During my time at my previous job, I was able to demonstrate my versatility, aptitudes, and willingness to work hard to influential people. My mentor was strongly connected to an electric utility, and they hired me into their regulatory department, Houston Light and Power, at $75,000.
Within eight months, I was embedded in the leadership of power industry working groups as the Manager of Regulatory in the wholesale division.
I looked around the meeting rooms across the country, and my counterparts were all men. They were predominantly engineers and a few attorneys; no one made less than six figures. My direct supervisor (Vice President) knew that. When I brought up my success, he bumped me to $100,000 (about $170,000 in 2021) and gave me a 15% bonus because I had gained industry influence. In my annual review, I received another 8 percent ($108,000 in 1999).
Then, my boss changed; he hired his own guy from outside the company. I quit when his guy (whom I mentored for four months) conducted my performance review even though we were at the same level.
Venturing into Silicon Valley
Three weeks later, I was working at the director level for APX, a Silicon Valley startup providing innovative digital solutions to the power industry. I was hired at $118,000. There, I played a pivotal role in expanding the company’s reach beyond the California market.
I hired a team and launched a more technical real-time product for the newly combined Texas power grid. I was promoted to Senior Director at $130,000 with a 30% bonus. I led my team to win bids for the default provider for the Texas power grid and for a digital platform for verifying and banking renewable energy credits, and then delivered on both.
Amidst leadership changes, I continued to thrive. I was promoted to VP of national product development at $155,000 (about $230,000 in 2021) and a stretch bonus of 40%. I performed well and received my stretch bonus, but my tenure there ended because of “irreconcilable differences”.
Entrepreneurship and a Health Setback
I co-founded and worked as the VP of Wholesale Operations and Regulatory at a power utility in the competitive Texas market from the end of 2002 until it was sold in 2007. This experience proved invaluable, particularly because the solid medical insurance it offered paid for my brain surgery in 2004.
Then in 2007, I was hired by the Board of Directors at the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, a trade association and a nonprofit. I was hired with a salary of $60,000 – greater than the Executive Director’s but less than half of my salary at APX.
I had speech impairment from surgery, but my thinking was incisive and my writing skills were spot on. I was particularly pleased to be using my skills and detailed knowledge acquired in both the energy industry and the environment. I resigned in 2010, making $72,000 (about $100,000 in 2021 dollars).
A Return to Policy and Tech
Happy to speak fluently again and after a 4-year caregiver gap, I planned my return to work while transitioning to a different policy issue.
I pursued another 2-year master’s to specialize in conflict management applied to technology and graduated in 2016. I learned that the disruption and security risks that lead to conflict are loss of privacy, misinformation, cybercrimes, and unethical artificial intelligence [AI] policy issues.
In 2017, I earned my certification in privacy. Getting no job interviews, I delved more deeply into tech and pursued training in data science in R, then got a career track certificate in data science in Python early in 2020.
The Unseen Side of Upskilling
Despite my “upskills” being very much in demand – policy skills combined with machine learning, ethics and privacy – I faced gendered ageism in job applications, a sobering realization that upskilling isn’t always the solution.
If you plan on making a mid-career investment, consider a complete change of careers rather than relying on demonstrated past skills and knowledge, and upskilling. Reskilling and a short resume may be the key to success.
Dedication to Responsible AI and Sustainability
Over the years, I’ve participated in responsible AI with IEEE and have been Policy Fellow at a women’s careers nonprofit and I am currently the COO of a bootstrapped pre-seed startup in a regulated industry. I also recently earned my certification for corporate sustainability reporting bringing my knowledge and skills developed in a career of leading-edge policy issues to strategic environmental, social, and governance performance.
I believe that my journey serves as a reminder that a career path is not always linear, and embracing change while pursuing one’s passions can lead to fulfilling and impactful work.