We need to talk about her. You probably know who. That analyst, designer, writer, engineer who has been at the organization for just a year or two and is already doing the work of someone several levels above her current pay band. Or maybe she’s not even on your radar, because she’s the dependable one who always delivers on-time and under budget, without any drama.
Despite this woman’s outstanding contributions, you haven’t promoted her or given her a raise. It’s not fair and you know it.
Maybe you think she has to wait her turn, or brush up on her soft skills and work better with others, or that she simply needs more experience. But all of those things also applied to the many talented men who have rapidly advanced through the ranks of your organization. They had somehow not been beholden to the same constraints of “promotions are given every three years” or “but what if so-and-so gets upset that they didn’t get a raise too?”
You’ve talked a big talk about mentoring and development opportunities, but when push comes to shove, you give her the less glamorous work, the “maybe next time” speech, the completed plan decided in a separate meeting without her, because it was just easier and perhaps you think she won’t make as much of a fuss about it.
Maybe you even think you’re getting away with it because she says “fine” and does a great job anyway. But do you really think that there’s no resentment in that moment? No disappointment that’s stacked on top of other disappointments that she suffers quietly with along with the occasional leer, dick joke, and unwanted touching that she deals with as just the day-to-day life of a woman who is killing it in a company run by men?
She’s no fool. She’s taking classes outside of work, maybe with company support, but often paid out of her own pocket. She’s got side projects where she’s developing new skills and learning how to lead, because outside the company walls there’s no one who can hold her back. She’s got a network and she knows what her friends at other companies make and she has thought about what she might do if her paycheck were 20%, 30%, or 50% bigger.
It’s not too late. You can still turn this around. But you’ll have to move fast. Back up her decisions, especially when they are right but politically uncomfortable. Get her in front of senior leadership and show off her work. Give her a real challenge and the authority and space to operate. Show her how she can do better next time when she makes a mistake instead of just being annoyed. And pay her what she’s worth, with a title to match. After all, she’s grown more in the last six months than some of your team have grown in the last six years.
Do these things and she’ll respect you and keep doing phenomenal work. Her dedication and ingenuity will pay off in dividends for your product, your team, and your KPI’s — making you look like a star in front of your boss and your clients.
Fail to do these things and she will leave, probably after a big project wraps up because even in the end, she’s still responsible. She’ll take a better role at a new organization, where she hopes to have a manager who will appreciate what she brings to the table. You’ll then have to write a job description, realize she was doing three people’s jobs,and spend six months interviewing candidates, hoping to find someone as good as she was, only to discover that no one will accept a job at the salary you were paying her. And even after you finally hire her replacement(s), you’ll still have to spend months getting them up to speed so that they, cross your fingers, might do as good a job as she did.
But all that hasn’t happened yet. You still have time to make it right. So make it right.
Photo courtesy of wocintechchat.com
First off, I’d like to say thank you to these wonderful women:
- Allison Esposito — the kick-ass founder of Hire Tech Ladies
- Belinda Chiang — a Stanford classmate who’s done impact investing in Cambodia, advised startups at Techstars, and is now a Product Manager at Hightower
- Chevon Drew — a former colleague at Percolate who’s a senior digital communication associate at RaceForward
- Sarah Allen — a former coworker at the Presidential Innovation Fellowship who’s a serial entrepreneur and team lead at Google.
These women took the time to provide meaningful feedback that improved this piece. I have immense respect for all of them and I hope you have a chance to work with, or work for, them someday.
This article is inspired by the struggles I have heard from many talented, ambitious women who do amazing work that is as good and often better than the men around them, but don’t get the recognition, compensation, or opportunity they deserve. These issues are often worse for women of color. Sexism in the workplace is not always overt harassment. It can be downplaying of the ideas and contributions of women, comments like “she can be abrasive”, or simply enforcing a higher bar for raises and promotions.
This isn’t just something “other people” do. Well-intentioned men and women may still unintentionally reinforce patriarchal patterns and devalue women.
I include myself in that group.
While writing this post, I asked these women — two of whom edit writing by trade — to help review my article, for free. It was presumptive and wrong of me to make such a request and not even offer to pay them for their time and expertise. #facepalm
I’m lucky that Chevon made the effort to call me out on this in a kind way and helped me see my mistake. Ultimately I was able to provide direct financial compensation or make a donation on their name to RailsBridge, an organization that helps women and underrepresented minorities level up their programming skills. An important lesson learned.
Additional Reading and Resources:
- If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention — Rachel Thomas
- Recommended Reading for Allies — Toria Gibbs & Ian Malpass
- Diversity is a broken product in tech. FIX IT. — Bo Ren
- LedBetter: The Gender Equality Index
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