The two hours spent in a room full of women discussing salary negotiations with a retired (“recovering”) politician would by no means seem to be a conventional component of an architectural education – and yet I left the Wage Project workshop this weekend, lead by former Lt. Governor of Massachusetts Evelyn Murphy, convinced that it should be. Murphy, a strong speaker with a startling blue stare that belied a fragile frame, was swarmed by her audience after the talk. During the workshop where every seat was filled, there was a pervasive eagerness for the guidelines and wisdom which Murphy presented. Collectively, we in the audience had been working in a variety of architectural, engineering and urban planning positions from anywhere from zero to twenty-five years and – if anyone else felt like I did – a creeping panic that I had been so woefully unprepared to advocate for our worth, let alone quantify it.
Merely summarizing the event would not do justice to its emotional impact on our group, but out of concern that the basic tenants leave the room I feel compelled to repeat some major points (and to encourage anyone to bring the Wage Project to a new audience). While mostly certain that each of us entered the workshop with an awareness of the statistical evidence of a wage gap between men and women (that women make only 77 cents to the dollar a man earns), we were forced to confront the less tangible – the more psychological or cultural elements of the problem that has persisted throughout the past two decades at the same rate. Timidness, self-doubt, passiveness are all internal enemies to our progress, according to Murphy, even as the more obvious barriers to women in professional settings disappear. “I want my million dollars!” we screamed, prompted by Murphy’s strategy to have us confront the amount of earnings that would separate us from our equally-qualified male counterparts, according to the Wage Project’s research, as the earning gap increases throughout our careers.
Most of what the workshop discusses applies to anyone earning a living, certainly not just architects. But what is important to consider is what makes us, as architects/planners/landscape architects/designers, think differently about ourselves and our work. Whether architects see themselves as artists, engineers, entrepreneurs or somewhere in between, chances are their relationship to salary is much different than, say, a bankers’ whose job it is to deal with financial markets. Architects are willing to exchange pay for more interesting or creatively fulfilling work, or perhaps a learning experience with a “great” figure in the field who may not run a high-grossing operation. What I’m trying to say is that in architecture, money is not a primary motivator. Toxic practices such as unpaid internships are still widely in place as architects forgo a fair wage for such elusive rewards as creative control, prestige or notoriety. It’s not just women who find themselves bringing home less bacon than other similarly-accredited professionals.
By gathering as a group of women with ambition, who by simply attending the meeting have signalled an intention to act, is an extraordinary first step. Out of this diverse group came an immense amount of wisdom which was there before the workshop, but which was creatively shared with the group through a role-play exercise where we broke into teams of two, wearing hats of either employee and employer, with instructions that the employee had to negotiate for a $6000 salary increase, while the employer was instructed, not to give it. As the group gathered after this challenge, Murphy took a tally of those who had successfully gotten what they asked for. In sharing, we heard from the woman who described her practice of continuously quantifying her value in her current position to keep her credentials updated to better negotiate a salary increase. There was another woman who countered her boss’ challenge to her request for a raise with her own request to see the research the boss had done to justify the refusal of her raise, vetting the employer’s work instead of vice-versa. There was the woman who was creative in asking for benefits that got her raises when her superiors were short on cash and reminding us all that there are other ways to be compensated for a job well done.
And yet despite these lessons which we learned from each other, as Murphy wrote the tallies on the blackboard, the numbers revealed all with less than 50% of employees getting their raise and our “group” negotiation skills obviously in need of being sharpened. This segwayed into real stories from the group of women who were given a new title without a promotion, or many stories of the difficulties in simply being able to schedule a meeting with an employer to sit down and discuss salary at all. Women who ask for money at the wrong time, or in the wrong tone, or for various other reasons do not get what they are asking for. And so what we are realizing is that training in how to ask – successfully- has been overlooked/downplayed and yet, recognition of this is the vital first step in correcting the imbalance. Learning to recognize salary negotiation as a crucial element of any woman’s career is what really has to change.