My first ever job was working on Saturdays in a shoe shop. I earned £2.80 an hour, being exempt from minimum wage at the age of 15. It was the first time I could assign a monetary value to my time. In the years of part-time work that followed, I would motivate myself through boring shifts with an interior monologue.
Hang in there for 15 minutes and you can make another 70p.
Nowhere was this mindset more literal than when I worked as a waitress at Pizza Hut. We wore zipped bags around our waist to carry the tips left by customers. On a Saturday evening shift the usually meagre tippers of Stoke-on-Trent were at their most generous. Into my bag went the loose change, the coppers, a few pounds here and the holy grail, a £5 note! The money became heavier, rattling on my body as I moved. I’d anticipate the moment I got home, underestimating the total amount to give myself an extra boost. Tired and greasy, I’d tip the contents of my bag on to the floor and count my money. £40 was enough to fund my usual treats: a new band t shirt, a few rounds of drinks, and a magazine, all the more valued because I worked hard for them.
Making a career of it
Fast forward to my first graduate job, where work allegedly became a career. I started on a grad scheme at a large market research company. We were assessed in our training by giving presentations to senior staff. The starting salary was low but if we did a good enough job, we got pay rises of around £1,000 in the first and second years. I liked the structure and it seemed fair. I knew that all the people at my level were being paid the same. Those presentations gave me sleepless nights but at least we knew where we stood. When I moved on from that job, it all became more complicated…
As I moved beyond junior level, people started to become more secretive about salaries. Whilst in the public sector there are bands of pay to expect at different levels, the private sector likes to hide this information. It was no longer obvious when my next pay rise would appear and there were many more factors involved. Who my manager was. The clients I worked with. When I joined. The performance of the company. Whether I was seen as someone ‘with potential’ or at risk of leaving. This unsettled me. It was like finding out the rules when the game was already underway.
As I looked for new jobs, I encountered recruiters for the first time. My first experience was hilariously shady. I received a call on my work number about a new job and arranged to meet the recruiter, who wouldn’t give full details on the phone. When I got there I was asked several questions about my current job and salary, which I found uncomfortable, but thought I had to play along. It wasn’t clear what job they were recruiting for, though many good jobs were alluded to. The person then revealed they had lied about their name during our original call. This seemed like a red flag. How could I do business with someone who lied to me at the outset?
Climbing a slippery ladder
Moving on to my next role, I was offered a job with the same job title and level as the one I had. I felt I was ready to move up to a junior manager but I was persuaded by the recruiter that as I was moving to a different type of company, it would be appropriate to stay at the same level. If I did well, I’d quickly be promoted. So I accepted the job, worked hard and within a year was getting great feedback and line managing a new starter. You would think I was ready for that promotion. So did I!
This is when I came up against my first real salary and progression negotiation. I thought I had everything I needed to approach this professionally. A good track record. Testimonials from projects I’d done. Proof I was taking responsibilities over and above my job title. But the response was it wasn’t possible to promote me. They wanted to make sure I was ready, there were more areas to develop, and I needed to prove myself even more. I was so disappointed. Around this time I started to feel ashamed about revealing my salary. It was less than I assumed it should be. Did that make me less?
Years later I understood what happened. They already had enough managers and were constrained by budgets and red tape. But I believed it must be something to do with my performance or even my personality. I felt having to bring up money reflected badly on me and made me less likeable. It started to affect my self-worth and I lowered my career expectations. Eventually someone left and I got the promotion. But the years of waiting around had an impact. It cost me time and motivation.
A sometimes unhappy hustle
I resolved to work harder and take on more responsibilities. I would be a leader by hard work, even if I still didn’t quite understand the game. I organised conferences, gave talks, took on more staff to manage, continued to go to events and learn skills in my spare time. There were a lot of wins during this time, and some great experiences. But there was a growing concern that it wasn’t always recognised. I had close colleagues, but no one felt comfortable discussing their salary. It felt like a political minefield. Different teams were valued differently and there were benefits you only found out about when you reached a certain level. If you obtained a raise somehow, yet broke the secrecy rule by talking about it, perhaps you would lose any future advantage.
Living in London means being constantly squeezed by rents and cost of living.
I started to see that many of my colleagues got by because they were in a relationship with someone who earned more or because they had owned property. But there are no guarantees. Becoming single in my early 30s was terrifying. I knew I couldn’t rely on there being two people to pay bills. Financial independence had to be the goal. Consuming all the messages fed to women in business, I knew I had to hustle. I just didn’t know how to make that work with who I was.
I was in the dark, but I had friends in the industry who knew the market rates. They told me I was being underpaid. They tried to galvanise me into action and get me to see my worth. However these tough-love talks were hard. I already felt I was very proactive but my self-esteem was in free fall. I was doing all I could to meet objectives and prepare for reviews with a sense of impending doom. I compared myself to other managers – why did they seem to be offered opportunities to take on different teams or work in different regions when I did not? Was it all in my head? I sought mentors and advice. Shout about your achievements, promote others, work more with this <sought after discipline of the day>, do a project with this <popular team of the moment>. Do lots more things. Yet work already occupied most of my waking thoughts. Towards the end it became a daily struggle. My GP told me I needed a new job.
Seeing the light at the end
When the company published its gender pay gap stats, I was already leaving. It confirmed what I knew. It wasn’t me. It was (at least partly) the system. And it was the lack of transparency which stopped my ability to know if I was compensated fairly or to gauge how to negotiate in context. Would it be awkward to publish salaries across the board? Yes. Would there be perplexing outliers revealed? Yes. But would it make pay fairer and save some of the personal stress discussed above? Undoubtedly.
On my last day the person I managed right at the beginning told me I had done a great job and really helped him in the early part of his career. That meant a lot. In fact I still get together for beers with a number of people I’ve worked with along the way. I am proud of that. Perhaps it means more than pay rises.
I am not my job
Recruitment has evolved, but one of the practices that remains is being pressured to give salary details. These are used to assess the level of salary you can expect in your next perm role.
Recruiters in the tech industry are in the majority male, so they may not realise that this perpetuates the gender pay gap.
Women are paid on average less than their male counterparts, so pegging future salaries to current ones is never going to help us reach equality. Ask what salary range someone is looking for, not what they have.
I no longer conflate my value as a person and a professional. Somewhere along the line money starting to weigh on my sense of self, in a less fun way than those Pizza Hut tips all those years ago. Becoming a freelancer helped to free me. Freelancers can be much more transparent about our rates. They are higher than permanent salaries for good reason – no sick pay, no pension, shorter notice periods etc. But I am more in control because no one else is determining the value of my time.
It’s healthier to view myself as separate from my job.
Again, setting up as a freelancer helps with that because you can operate as a company. I’ve also learned these lessons from other women: I am better than my best piece of work. I can produce a shit piece of work and not actually be shit. It’s not about perfection. This doesn’t mean I don’t still have high standards, but when did beating myself up ever improve my career? I am also getting better at not being liked. Some people will like working with me and others may not. That’s ok. The world is big and people are different. My value comes from who I am with friends and family, the difference I’ve made in all the roles I’ve had and finding those I can work with to make life better.
Now I know my worth.