Black in Tech - Was My Salary Fair? No.
Technology was supposed to be the great equalizer. That hasn't happened. Being Black, I learned a hard lesson at my first tech job:
Technology can be an equalizer, but right now, it's an oppressor.
We'll be covering the following:
- Retaliation in my Salary Negotiation
- Lifetime Impact of a Pay Gap
- Black Employees Matter (because apparently people still need to be reminded)
- Why I Stayed Silent
My first dev job was with a company that does annual salary reviews for its employees. My manager gave me a 20% raise, which sounds very generous!
It wasn't. Here's why:
- It would have taken a 50% raise to elevate my salary to the industry standard for someone in my city with my skill level.
- sources: local tech recruiters, Glassdoor, LinkedIn and Salary.com
- My project was going to generate a lot of revenue
- A sales document that I wasn't supposed to see was leaked to me. The project that I was leading at the time was going to earn the company millions in revenue annually.
- My starting pay was lower than that of my white coworker
- When hired, my manager said that my starting salary was the top of the pay band for new developers.
- My Asian coworker's starting salary was the same as mine.
- My white coworker informed me that he started $5k/year higher than me.
- All 3 of us started with the exact same level of experience (none).
- I was originally offered a 25% raise
- I was advised by a white coworker to counter-negotiate because it worked for him. Why didn't it work for me?
- I asked for a 30% raise and was met with a "best and final offer" that was 5% less than their initial offer.
- My Asian coworker got his 25% raise
- He did not attempt to counter-negotiate.
- The justification was that I was still a "junior"
- This contradicted what my manager told me when I started: that there weren't any "junior" titles.
- I had been with the company for 15 months, and this was my first time being given any notification that I was a "junior."
- No reasonable software engineering manager would consider my projects to be "junior."
The result was a salary difference of $3k/year at the time. $3,000 annually isn't a lot, until you look at lifetime earnings. A $3,000 difference in annual salary results in an extra $134,595.53 after 20 years.* Imagine if the difference was $5,000. Or $10,000. It could mean the difference between affording to retire at the end of a long career and not.
But sure, tell me more about how Black people would have more money if only we managed it better.
*(When invested, and earning the U.S. market-average 7% rate of return. source: SEC Compound Interest Calculator)
We understand money to be a status symbol, and there’s no doubt that that’s true in a capitalist society. This is why income matters.
By paying me less, you’re literally saying that my life and labor is less valuable than that of my peers.
In my case, there was documentable evidence that I was not treated as an equal to my non-Black coworkers. Creating an uneven basis of pay further contributed to management's bias against me.
This is one of the many ways in which implicit bias can form.
If my manager knows that my salary is less than that of my white counterpart, it's impossible to level up. My manager has no choice but to assume that it's because I have inferior skills. Especially if we're all pretending that America is somehow past racism...
What happened to Colin Kaepernick wasn't a fluke. Black employees who expose systemic racism within their organization are risking their career.
I have well-meaning white friends that insist that I demand more money. They've seen me work and they know how much I should be earning. What they don't understand is that if I push too much, I'm labeled as aggressive and ungrateful.
I don’t want being Black in tech to be a fight for equal treatment. I want a chance to be the good engineer I've proven myself to be. As we learned from Kaepernick, standing for what's right is a huge risk.
Few Black people are in a position to take that risk. I wasn't.
If I’m the only Black employee, all I can do is hope that someone has enough "empathy" to see things from my perspective. And I'm almost always the only Black employee.
The manager of a mostly white team has a lot of power. It is much easier to dismiss me as uncooperative, selfish, or even entitled than it is to address my concerns. My coworkers saw what was happening, but they said nothing. It was more important for them to stay on the manager's good side.
Management liked to brag about creating jobs in an underdeveloped country in South America after opening an office there. They sounded like the Imperialists who “civilized” Africa in the colonial days. Did I mention they were British?
I'm the son of an African immigrant who was born under British colonialism. My manager knew this. How could I ever feel safe in this kind of environment, let alone work to my full potential?
After my salary negotiation, I felt hurt and confused by what appeared to be retaliation. Especially since I considered my manager to be a friend. Still, I decided it was safer not to confront the matter just in case they had indeed retaliated.
Besides, who could I report this to? I was informed that these salary limits were set by HR. That wasn't true. I was gaslit into believing that I was a bad engineer, and that no one else would give me opportunities like this. That wasn't true either (though it took me a while to learn that).
I had the audacity to ask for more money. I challenged the judgement of the people in power (my manager). But remember, when my white coworker counter-negotiated, he was "bold" and "knew his worth."
Should I have asked questions about my raise? Honestly, I don't know. I couldn’t afford to get fired in another bout of retaliation. But it's been agonizing not to have that closure. It has affected all of my future negotiations. I still don't know for sure why they paid me less, or why my raise was adjusted.
Like any abusive ex, the unequal treatment from this employer is a ghost that'll haunt me for a long time. It appears in my dreams. It appears whenever I have to advocate for myself. It's suffocating me.
I can't escape it.
I can't breathe.
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About the Author: Leo Yockey
Techie, Writer, and Speaker from Los Angeles. Advocate for underrepresented technologists. Hobbies include reading, PS4, and spending time with my girlfriend and cat. If you like what you see here, you may want to join me on Twitter.