Welcome to Ambition Diaries, where real women share their stories of striving for more — and what actually happened. I’m so glad you’re here and hope you’ll consider joining us for more conversations like this by subscribing here (it’s free)!
In the meantime, meet Cynthia, a San Francisco based millennial working in educational technology.
Like me, Cynthia is part of the generation of women raised in the era of "girl power" turned "girlboss" - taught to lean into their ambitions and take what they deserve.
But in practice, asking for more isn't always simple and doesn't always go the way we hope. Cynthia shared her story with me about two negotiations gone wrong — and how a rescinded job offer put her on a better path.
When was the first time you tried to negotiate for more money?
I had been working in international education for four years, and had been at my company for about a year and I’d picked up a lot of new responsibilities. I was making about $40,000 a year and lived in San Francisco. When I asked for a raise, I sent an email first to kind of prime my manager, but I then had a face-to-face conversation about it. I asked for a bit more compensation because of my new responsibilities. And basically, I was told no. She said everyone with my title was paid the same salary across the company, so there was nothing she could do. And then she said, “You enjoy what you do, don’t you?”
There are a lot of implications in that: that because I enjoy my job and I’m choosing to be there, I don’t need a raise. That you get paid more based on your misery — the more miserable you are, the more you get paid, I guess.
How did that experience change your relationship to that job?
That was when I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go now.” I started looking in the international education industry, but I knew that the role I was looking to get into had a cap in terms of title and responsibility, unless I went back to school and got a master’s or a PhD. So I applied for a job at a study abroad company, and I got an offer, and it was exactly what I wanted to do. It paid $45,000, and I was pretty excited — that was a $5,000 raise. I still wanted to negotiate, but I hedged in every way possible, nothing like what you would get if a man was trying to negotiate their salary.
First, I asked for a higher salary, and they said no. The hiring manager said, “Your past experience was not directly related to our work, and there will be a substantial learning curve within the first year. We’re committed to mentoring you with the hope that you will excel in this role, and the salary is set at 45. There’s not much wiggle room, but we could increase to 46.”
I basically said, “That’s fine, still super excited. Is there something else? Maybe more vacation days?” They essentially came back and said, “It seems like you’re not very happy with the package we’re offering.” And I said, “No, no, no, that’s not true. I just want to advocate for myself.” And later that day, my offer was rescinded.
How did you feel in that moment?
I was really sad. A little bit angry. I stopped even looking for a job for around two months because it was just like, Oh my God, I have five years of experience in this industry, and this woman is telling me I’m barely worth $46,000.
It sounds like there was a lot of gaslighting going on, too.
It’s deeply traumatizing to hear that from someone in a position of power, who has more experience than you in your field. When they tell you you’re not experienced, you believe it. What authority do you have to say, “No, I’m definitely experienced”?
How did you move forward?
It just took time. I cried a lot. And then I also felt really pathetic that I couldn’t just get over it. There was kind of that shame: Oh my God, am I really getting this upset over a $46,000 job offer with my experience? Am I so sad that I lost this “amazing opportunity”?
Mostly I think I just let it wash over me and kept going. Eventually I realized I dodged a bullet because I deserve more. But the real turning point is that I decided not to pursue my career in international education anymore. Having both of these negotiations not work out left a really bad taste in my mouth for the whole industry. If I’m living in pretty much the most expensive city in America, and I’m being told I’m ungrateful for asking for more than $45,000 a year, with five years of experience in that industry, I didn’t see a lot of opportunity for me. That’s when I made the switch to Ed Tech, an industry with much better compensation and a lot more flexibility.
Do you have a story to tell about how ambition has played out in your life — for better or for worse? Let us know in the comments.
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