There’s something to be said for that first feeling of full adulthood independence. I’m not talking about the first time you leave home or the first time your parents let you drive the car on your own. I’m talking about the first few moments of living in a post-college “real” world; being in a new city surrounded by professional and motivational hustle and bustle; experiencing freedom to explore opportunities and the start of shaping your career.
In the first months of this new-found independence high, I felt unstoppable. It was fall of 2008, and after having graduated from college that spring, I moved into an amazing rowhouse in Washington, DC with six of my best friends. The city was my oyster and I was determined to not be discouraged by the lack of jobs for college graduates caused by the recent economic downtown.
I quickly found a few random odd jobs to fill my time and my dwindling bank account, and beef up my resume (which I constantly updated, edited, and polished in hopes of attracting new job offers). With a BA in Cultural Anthropology and a minor in Fine Arts, I did not have a specific career path in mind but rather was open to all sorts of fields. Of course I dreamed of some jobs over others. Landing a job at National Geographic or the Smithsonian would have felt to me like winning the lottery, and, as I routinely checked their websites and Idealist.org, I naively applied to any relative listing for which I thought I could possibly meekly qualify.
As the months dragged on and I still had not been called by National Geographic for an interview (did I mention this was 2008?1), I realized I needed to cast a wider net. Plain and simple, I needed a job and what comes with it: income.
When I finally managed to get a full time offer in a field that I was actually interested in, I turned it down. I was not willing to work as a secretary for a male executive director who put me through three two hour in-person interviews (which were more like his time to mansplain everything to me).
He spent entirely too long commenting on my outfits and how he liked that my “lipstick matched my shirt”. I should have known to steer clear of him from the very first time I stepped foot in his building when I met one of his male employees while I was waiting for the elevator. Upon learning that I was interviewing with the executive director this employee looked me up and down and stated, “You’ll do just fine. [Executive Director] loves a girl in all black”. But times were tough, I needed a job, and good paying jobs were scarce. So I returned for each call back interview. Ultimately, I could not stomach the idea of working in such a blatantly sexist and masculine environment, and politely turned down the offer by saying that I had found a job better suited to me.
Only a week or so later I received a call from the Congressional office where I had recently interned. Someone was leaving the office and they needed a new Staff Assistant ASAP. Did I have a car and a working driver’s license? I did?! Hired. Apparently that’s about all you need to get your foot in the door in some Capitol Hill offices.
Working on the Hill was no National Geographic, but politics had always interested me and I liked everyone in the office enough. The staff consisted of about 12, the majority of which were women between the ages of 24-40.
I liked this, and felt comfortable. Our boss, a veteran female member of Congress, was a pillar for women’s rights. This office felt completely in contrast to the overtly sexist office (with the female fashion connoisseur/mansplainer) where I previously received a job offer.
For the better part of a year I worked as Staff Assistant. My main duties were to chauffeur my boss to and from events and appointments and to speak to (often disgruntled) constituents on the phone. It was not a glamorous gig. As the Chief of Staff liked to remind me, a monkey could do what I did. A monkey who could drive, that is. Like most employed monkeys, Staff Assistants are also paid very little. My starting salary was $25k. With over time hours (and there were always a lot of non-negotiable over time hours), I kicked it up to about $28 or $29k. With DC prices this was enough to live on month to month, but I could forget about a true savings account.
Had my mom not been paying car insurance for me (okay, so maybe I wasn’t completely independent), I likely would have had to find a second job in my “free” time in order to make ends meet.
Regardless, I was very thankful for and overall enjoyed my job on the Hill. Even on nights when I arrived home at 11pm in tears from “hanger” caused by a no-time-to-eat-dinner schedule and a long stressful day that ended with the relentless fight to find an open parking spot within a mile of my house.
The high of independence and freedom started to fade, and was instead replaced by jadedness and frustration. Some months later, a staffer in our office announced he was leaving. The natural progression was for me to be promoted to his position, and for the office to hire someone to replace me. Admittedly, I was thrilled. The hours spent driving my boss through DC traffic and the lack of intellectual stimulation were wearing on me. I saw this promotion as an opportunity to take on some safe soft political issues, bust out my satisfactory writing and critical thinking skills, and prove my worth to senior staffers.
I also saw this promotion as an opportunity to negotiate a pay raise. Since this new position was more or less strictly 9am-6pm, my overtime hours, and thus overall take-home salary, would be drastically reduced. My Chief of Staff, however, informed me that I would not be receiving a pay increase or be allowed to take charge of any political issues.
I decided I needed to make a case for myself, but I was nervous. I’d never negotiated a salary or professional responsibilities before. How could I sound professional and firm yet not overbearing and foolishly demanding? I agonized over what to say and how to present my arguments, but I was also determined to try.
I did not want to become one of the statistics of young women who fail to negotiate their first salary and therefore ultimately make $1 million less than their male counterparts over the rest of their lifetime. I also honestly needed enough money to pay the bills each month, and frankly was a little insulted that my Chief of Staff didn’t trust my ability to handle an issue or two.
On a Friday, my Chief of Staff told me to hastily let him know if I would accept the new position or not. I spent the majority of the weekend carefully drafting an email to him to express my financial concerns and intellectual needs. I enlisted the help of my roommates (young professional women themselves), a co-worker, and my boyfriend at the time. In a semi-collaborative effort, we produced an email of which I was very proud, but still extremely anxious to send.
I knew I was taking a bit of a risk in asking for a whopping $30k for my new salary and was not sure my pleas for more intellectual stimulation would be met. I was also nervous about stating that I didn’t want to be forced to look for a new job, but it might come to that if my financial needs couldn’t be taken care of in my new salary. But I knew that others in the office had pushed for similar things and received them after standing firm and refusing to back down.
Firm confidence was not a strong suit of mine, and the possibility of a negative confrontation terrified me. After a bit of an internal dialogue, however, I gathered enough courage to hit “send” and let the e-letter make its way to my Chief of Staff’s inbox.
Monday came and went. I was all jitters the entire day as I tried to anticipate the reaction to my email. When the day ended without any interaction, I simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief and felt the knot in my stomach grow. That night I received a one line email from my Chief of Staff saying he would speak with me the next day.
Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. The following morning, he rather calmly pulled me into his office and proceeded to yell at me until he was sweating and red in the face (not an unusual state for him). Clearly, he did not like my email. But, to this day, I don’t understand why his reaction had to be so debilitating. Multiple times he referred to my asking for “more” as “immature”, and confirmed to him that I was not ready to be a “real” staffer with responsibilities. He used words that made me feel worthless and completely replaceable.
The kicker, though, was when he blared, “If you want to stay in this field, you need to learn to act and take things like a man!” Say what. Wait, back up. WHAT. Let me make sure the year is still 2009 and I didn’t accidentally drive to work in a Delorian that took me back to the 1950s. And you’ll excuse me as I thought I was “acting like a man” by standing up for myself and asking for things. Also, may I point out the irony here that you are Chief of Staff to a Congresswoman who is infamous for fighting on behalf of women’s rights and gender equality? And you, her Chief of Staff, are telling me to take things like a man? Hold on, please, while I get Politico on the phone. Shame on me because I did not have the guts to say any of these thoughts out loud. Instead, all I could mutter was, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for my expressed concerns about the new position to be taken like that”. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have said to me if I had been a man.
Our “conversation” ended with him demanding that I tell him right then and there if I wanted to stay in the office. I told him that I did. I also wanted to crawl in a hole and die, but I didn’t tell him that part. He then informed me that I needed to call the Legislative Director, who was not in the office that day, and apologize to her, as well. I did as I was told, and tried to the best of my ability to hold back tears, stuff my emotions as far down as possible, and put on an air of professionalism. Is that part of taking it like a man?
I called the LD on her cell phone and told her how sorry I was that my email had made people so upset, and that I had not intended to make anyone angry or defensive. She replied, “I’m glad to hear you say that. Because, honestly, it sounded like a big f*** you to us.” Again, I was stunned. What had I said to make them so upset? I was completely unsure. For years I’ve tried to figure out exactly what I had done to elicit such a forceful and angry reaction.
While my Chief of Staff’s reaction was extremely hurtful, I think the more upsetting instance was the lack of understanding or support from my LD. I would have thought that since she spent years as a woman in a man’s world that she might understand somewhat what negotiating your first raise is like. Yet, instead of providing support, empathy, or guidance, I got a slap in the face.
I never heard another word about my negotiation attempt from the Chief of Staff or LD. Immediately after our conversations, things returned to normal--for everyone except me. My co-worker/friend advised me not to dwell or take their reactions personally. She theorized that they were having an extra bad day when they blew up at me, and believes they forgot about their anger minutes after talking with me. As sound advice as that may have been, I have never been able to completely shake these events.
It’s been five years since I left DC and I can still vividly relive that moment in the Congresswoman’s office, being yelled at for asking for more and not being more of a man. What’s more, this experience continues to affect me in current ventures. I’m fearful of running into conflict with anyone who is my superior and as a result I never stand up for myself, particularly when money is involved. I know that I need to work on growing my confidence--that’s something everyone can always do. But I often wonder if my first bosses hadn’t reacted in such a harsh manner would I be as insecure now about working towards promotions and asking for more.
That leads me to wonder how many other young women have been set back from similar experiences. Maybe strengthening women’s equality in the workplace isn’t just about encouraging women to negotiate, know their worth, and ask for more. Maybe it’s also about imploring senior work members, women in particular, to support and guide young women as they progress rather than expecting them to act like men and being disappointed when they don’t.
-- This member has opted to remain anonymous to protect the identity of those mentioned in the story.