Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

3514668147_061a386342_zThis story comes from a fellow WomanOfScience who is in Industry. This is a two-part story, and should be read as an anecdote to help those of you interested in going into industrial science, and what you should watch out for in that route. Some of these characters and situations are quite similar to the academic track, which is sad. I hope you enjoy the story and learn from it, as I have. Part 2 will come online shortly.

Part 1:

I graduated from one of the nation’s most exclusive tech universities with what was considered a very “hard” major and nearly straight A’s at age 19.  I got my Ph.D. at 24, again with near-perfect grades.  I thought my math and science abilities would always allow me to overcome the occasional unprofessional encounter.

Then I entered the corporate world.

I had wanted to be a professor.  I found out a week before my planned start date of my second post-doc that there were some serious problems with the position.  Fortunately, a grad school connection asked me to interview at the only company in the world with commercial success at what I had studied in grad school.  I decided to accept a job at this company.  I thought I’d be able to prioritize my work and benefits to eventually re-enter academia.  Many departments in my FieldOfEngineering value a couple years of industry experience.  Some even require it.  Things looked bright.  My new manager “Dr. Jekyll” was world-famous in my scientific niche.  The two of us would be the only ones in the department doing research.

At the time of the job offer, I knew I should try to negotiate something more.  My father, who has a background in Science and Engineering Management, warned me that it’s much easier to negotiate options or stock, followed by salary.  Conference attendance would be very hard to negotiate.  As the company was still a start-up, I was willing to accept the low pay.  Low salary with the expectation of a big reward from stock options is the norm at many startups.  It had been drilled into me that women often wind up with lower salaries and benefits because they don’t ask for as much.  Because I still hoped to return to academia someday, I naively asked for more conference attendance (3 conferences/yr , thinking that would keep in touch with academia).   Indeed, I was told that I could go to the conferences  already in the pipeline (those at which I already had papers/abstracts accepted), but after that no more than one conference per year.

Note: In reality the only way that I was able to manage even the one conference per year that I did was because I was a member of the technical committees at those conferences.  Most other industrial scientists/engineers didn’t go to conferences every year. The lesson: be skeptical of all promises that aren’t in writing.


So now I was yet another female engineer with low pay.  Six months later, when I checked on Glassdoor to see how my salary stacked up against my peers, I was shocked that I was being paid 30% less than my peers.  I had thought the low pay applied to everybody, not just me.

Earlier, I had read “Women Don’t Ask”, about women, salaries, and negotiation.  Based on this, I put together some slides on why I should be paid more. Now, to be clear, the book had emphasized that women sometimes get penalized for asking for raises.  In spite of this, I thought that the fact that I was being paid so much less than my peers meant that I couldn’t possibly be penalized much for asking.  Here I was, working nearly every weekend while the other engineers were not.  Meanwhile, it was just a coincidence that Dr. Jekyll’s projects kept getting canceled, right?  I was still doing good work and deserved commensurate compensation, didn’t I?

The first time I made my case for a raise, Dr. Jekyll seemed taken aback.  He said he didn’t think there was much he could do.  He said our company didn’t value the research-y work he and I were doing, and that both our jobs were at risk.  Indeed, the answer he claimed to have received from above was “no.”

At this point, I was spending about a third of my time on Dr. Jekyll’s pet project, “Frankenstein.”  It became clear to me that Frankenstein would never succeed.   In private I started to mention to Dr. Jekyll the reasons we should drop this project.  He kept saying things like “It has to succeed.”  Near the bitter end, he even yelled at me for my “negativity.”

Note: the project was eventually handed off to another team.  The new team quickly realized the project was hopeless and cancelled it.  The new team couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been killed years earlier, around the time I started vocalizing my concerns…

I asked for a raise about 6 months after my first request.  Dr. Jekyll got visibly angry and said no.  I didn’t understand how he could possibly be angry at me.  I was getting more done than most engineers in my department and being paid much less.  I assumed his anger wasn’t directed at me personally.  Big mistake.
I heard about an opportunity to join another team in need.  I thought, if my current team’s work isn’t being valued and I’m at risk of losing my job, why not join another team?  The hiring manager of the other team was optimistic about my potential contribution.  However, when I next met with Dr. Jekyll, his demeanor was that of an adult who had just caught a kid with her hand in the cookie jar.  “Didn’t you know I’d find out you’ve been looking at other teams?”, he said in fury, before I could say a word.  I didn’t understand what he was so angry about.  If we were at risk of losing our jobs, wouldn’t it be better for all of us if I left for a more stable team?  A few months later, another inquiry into another internal opening yielded a similar result.

So, what do you think? Comment or post! Follow the blog by pushing the +Follow button! Part 2 will be online soon.

Comments on: "Industrial Story – Part 1" (1)

  1. I am def not surprised by how your boss is reacting towards you wanting a new job or raising your salary. It is very unfortunate, but this seems to be the trend across science. Like you I have felt very under-appreciated in my current position, but it wasn’t until I had to leave for a bit that my boss and others became very concerned about the project I was working on, and are now trying to get me to stay. Be wise, but do what you have to and what will work out for you in the long run. These bosses have their careers already, it is time for you to write the chapters of your life.

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