I’m coming to Courtside Confidential with a story from my journey because I think it’s one that many women in our industry can learn from, if not relate to.
I was five years into what I originally thought was my dream job. For the past few years, I will admit, I had started to see some cracks in the organization that I had always idealized. I know that working for your idol or for a team that you grew up loving is always risky, but I thought maybe my experience would be different. For the most part, it was everything I thought it would be, besides a few cultural things that I had always tried to chalk up to “the old boys club” syndrome.
Like I said, I was five years in and thought it was plenty reasonable to set a time to chat with my boss about my first raise and possibly an upgrade in my title. I had progressively learned more, taken on more responsibility and overall believed I had exemplary work results. In any other industry other than sports, it would be perfectly reasonable to think about negotiating a raise after five years without one.
So I set up a time to speak with my boss, who was also the head of our organization and a well-loved public figure. One of my first mistakes was that I hadn’t made him aware that a raise or a title change was on my list of things to address. But in my defense, I don’t know if I would have been able to get those words out of my mouth without being interrupted, had I told him in advance that those were the topics I wanted to discuss.
The conversation started well enough. I told him I had several operational ideas and topics I wanted to discuss, which was true, but that I wanted to discuss some other more personal topics first in case he got pulled out of the meeting early, which happened often. I let him know that after five years I wanted to see if he would consider giving me a raise or a title change or both. I brought up how, when they approached me for the job, I was making a fair amount less than I agreed to when they hired me and that I had been okay with that because I was eager to join the organization. They had mentioned being able to slowly make up the difference in the first few years, and how that had not happened yet. I also mentioned how I thought my title, (which generally brought the word “secretary” to mind, even though it didn’t include that word), didn’t clearly represent all that I do for the organization.
I will give him credit in that he did listen to all of this and seemed open minded for a while. I thought it was going well at first and seemed hopeful. He began with a smile and told me how these things don’t get handled the way they do in the “corporate world,” which is something he often said to me when he thought I was being unreasonable about things. He used it against me regularly that I had a corporate background. He seemed to think that any time I had a suggestion or idea it was because I thought the corporate way of doing things was better, when in fact I was just usually trying to streamline things or make them more efficient. In this case, he was letting me know that just because it might be reasonable to have a salary negotiation conversation after five years in the corporate environment, basically, it isn’t here.
Don’t get me wrong: I get the differences and I understand that the two cultures are VERY different, and they kind of have to be. But I didn’t think what I was asking for was unreasonable.
Then things took a turn: I realized the conversation was all for naught because the “g” word was coming - grateful. He told me that I should be grateful for what I DO have in regards to my job. He reminded me of the perks of my job like traveling to playoff games, championship rings, and getting to have my family around me for a lot of my job. All of them were things I was VERY grateful for, and in fact thanked him for regularly. But those things do NOT erase or delegitimize the fact that asking for a raise or a title change - that would cost him nothing - was not unreasonable. Our organization was regularly in the top 10 of our sport and in the past season, ended in the top five. We were one of the highest valued organizations in our sport. I hadn’t even mentioned a number in regards to the raise I had in mind at that point, so I know his reluctance could not have been because my number was out of line.
As one of only two women in our office at the time, it was hard not to hear what he was saying and ask myself, “Should I just be grateful I’m here at all?” But I recently read something that Abby Wambach wrote in her book “Wolfpack.” She writes, “I was so grateful to be the token woman at the table, so grateful for any respect at all, that I was afraid to use my voice to demand more for myself.” I wish I had read this chapter on gratefulness before this conversation because I’d like to think I would have handled it differently.
The meeting ended with him telling me that he’d think about it and see what he could do. I thought that was better than a no, but in retrospect, what I think I really thought was, “I’m just grateful he didn’t say no.” And I’m guessing he knew just what he was doing in putting me off. Needless to say, I never saw a cent of any potential raise, and quit my job there eventually with the same title as the day I started, and headed to a different organization that offered me more opportunities.
What I want to get across here is just what Abby said, “Be grateful for what you have AND demand what you deserve.” You can be both grateful and ambitious. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I could have said something like, “I am undoubtedly grateful for my role here, but also think the role I play and the work I do line up with a different title and a raise of ________.” Who knows if it would have played out any differently if I had been better equipped for the conversation (although I spent weeks rehearsing it in my mind), but now I just see things so differently. When men at work infer that women are not grateful when they ask for more (money, respect, responsibility), it hits us in a sensitive place. Women aren’t brought up in the world to be loud, demanding or ambitious. Those things are often seen as weaknesses and undesirable traits. Being seen as ungrateful goes against all of the things we are supposed to be as women: demure, quiet, classy, and above all, we’re supposed to stay in our lane. And asking for more is certainly not in our lane.
In her book, Abby goes on to say, “Our gratitude is how power uses the tokenism of a few women to keep the rest of us in line.” What she’s pointing out is genius and I hadn’t seen put down in words before. When we as women accept just being grateful all the time, those in power, often men, can use the fact that so few of us hold important roles in our industry against us. We end up so grateful for the few great opportunities we have as a whole that we keep quiet because we don’t want to press our luck.
I hope that the women who read this get the nerve to ask for what they deserve and don’t let anyone tell them that asking for means that they somehow don’t appreciate their place in their organization. The two things aren’t related. Don’t let anyone brainwash you into thinking they are. That is how the status-quo remains: when the threat of being thought of as ungrateful becomes scarier than not getting what we deserve.