Stories From The Front Lines: “You Are Too Ambitious, Young Black Woman Engineer”

Stories From The Front Lines: “You Are Too Ambitious, Young Black Woman Engineer”

I often informally mentor young women who might come to me to ask, “what would you do” or “what do you think about this situation.” Here is one of the recent situations on which I was asked to give an opinion.

A young African American woman engineer had learned that she was not being paid as much as her male counterparts who had started the exact same day that she did. Her last performance evaluation rated her as “exceeds expectations.” This information was troubling to her so she decided to approach her manager to better understand why there would be such a significant pay differential, given she was doing essentially the same work as her male peers and had been rated a 4 out of 5 on her performance evaluation. She followed these steps:

  1. Requested a face-to-face meeting with her manager.
  2. Developed her talking points (e.g. Can you provide me with some specific performance feedback especially as it relates to how raises are determined? Why might there be differentials in pay for individuals performing the same work? What do I need to do differently so that my pay is more in line with my peers?).
  3. Had the meeting and posed the questions above.

Her manager responded that there were many factors that contributed to determining salaries and that she should just continue to perform well and her pay would take care of itself. She had predicted that the answer would be something like that but she wanted to make sure that her manager knew that she felt she was being underpaid and she felt she had accomplished that goal.

This is not the end of the story, though. During her next performance review the following year, her manager wrote: Mary (not her real name) is too ambitious and needs to have more realistic expectations about her progress. Now her evaluation rating was 3, “meets expectations” rather than “exceeds expectations.”

So Mary comes to me and asks what I think. I told her that there could be a number of reasons for the response including her manager is trying to protect himself and the pay disparities by, in essence, blaming her. He can now justify the pay differences based on the lower performance rating. Maybe her male counterparts were and are still rated higher than she is which justifies the pay differential. Maybe unconsciously he wanted to punish her for having the audacity to ask about the pay differential.

I advised her to have another meeting with her manager to better understand what he meant by “too ambitious”. What are the specific behaviors that demonstrate I am too ambitious? In addition, what are the specific differences in my performance from last year that justify the lower performance rating? I suggested that she be prepared to discuss her specific goals and accomplishments and compare them to the year before.

Mary did not get really clear answers in this follow on meeting and continues to be frustrated. It seems that her manager now tries to avoid her and ignores her in meetings. She is not asked to be a part of new project teams.

What went wrong and what should Mary do? We would love to hear your perspective on this situation.

About Mary-Frances Winters

Mary-Frances Winters, president and founder of The Winters Group, Inc. is a master strategist with over 30 years experience in strategic planning, change management, diversity, organization development, training and facilitation, systems thinking and qualitative and quantitative research methods. She has extensive experience in working with senior leadership teams to drive organizational change. Described by clients as highly creative, collaborative, visionary and results oriented, she is a sought after keynote speaker and workshop leader.

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