When I graduated from the University of Virginia to start a career in engineering I had high hopes of being an agent of change. I wanted to be an engineer that had an impact on the daily lives of people around me. I didn’t have a clear plan on how that was going to happen but I was enthusiastic and figured I would get it eventually. I accepted a job in my home town with the federal government as an engineer. In accepting the job, I knew about the General Schedule pay scale, called the GS scale, from my two summer internships. The GS scale is the pay scale the federal government uses to pay white collar collar jobs. The scale is open to the public and if you know a person’s rank the you can go to the Office of Personnel Management’s website and look up their pay. It’s not illegal to share salary information for ANY job, public or private. People commonly don’t share it because they feel like people will judge them harshly for making more money or think poorly of them for being paid so low. What actually happens is that once people know a basic expectation for what a job pays that gives you, the employee, the ability to go to your employer and demand your worth. And we should all be demanding our worth.
Before we go further, I want to address the perceptions the public has of federal employees of which I am one. The common perception is that we are all over paid to do nothing or very little work. This is patently not true. We do the same work that our private counterparts do for different compensation. There is a point of pride to be able to say that what I do supports our military. There is also a little more of a safety net by working for the government (But that’s even disappearing with the near yearly threat of furloughs and shutdowns). While most, if not all states have at will employment, which means that you can be fired for any reason at any time with no prior knowledge, the federal government is not the same. An employer needs to actually have a reason to fire you. Because of this difference people think what they think about federal employees. The federal government aims to be the model employer that the private sector should emulate.
When I started my job I was a GS-5 step 10. That’s great pay just coming out of college. I was happy. But then I found out that some of my colleagues that walked in the door with me were GS-7’s step 10. The other GS-5’s didn’t understand why we started lower to do the same exact job. We all just graduated college what makes one of us different from the other? We all did our talking to each other and decided that maybe it was our grade point averages. We all hesitantly decided that had to be the reason and let it go. To date I have never seen any official policy that says to hire people with lower GPAs at lower ranking. To give a little context, there was a guy with years of experience and a Ph.D that started as a GS-7. It was a pay cut from where he was but he accepted the job because his wife had a job at the same place.
Despite the starting pay confusion, I was comforted that while I started low, I would be able to promote quickly. There was a promotion plan in place that goes like this:
GS-5 - 6 months
GS-7 - 1 year
GS-9 - 1 year
GS-11 - 1 year
GS-12, fully trained engineer
In as little as 3 and a half years I would be a fully qualified GS-12 engineer. Anything under GS-12 is training status and anything over GS-12 is supervisory. But what did that mean for people that started as GS-7?
GS-7 - 6 months
GS-9 - 1 year
GS-11 - 1 year
GS-12, fully trained engineer
So for nothing more than having a better GPA (we guessed) they had a whole year off of the promotion plan. That one extra year isn’t actually an extra year of training. I’ve been working here for 7 years - there is no extra training and when you start work GS-5’s are expected to do the same exact work as GS-7’s. The inequality started in the beginning.
It goes without saying that a ton of people left in the first year of work. They mostly left to go to the private sector for better pay or to be close to home. I thought about my options but my job is in the middle of all my family and the community I was raised in. I didn’t want to leave. And it was really my fault for not finding out about the pay thing before I got the job right? I was just grateful to have a job in this economy. I’m not going to bite the hand that fed me. I stayed.
Everything was great with the job as I went though the promotion scale. There were small things in the background like 6 months later when I got my promotion to GS-7 step 3 a new class of engineers had been hired and those GS-7’s were GS-7 step 10 so 6 months of experience still didn’t beat out a fresh diploma and a high GPA and I had to help train those new hires to get to my level of proficiency. Then when those GS-7 step 10’s got their 6 month promotion they were GS-9 step 3 while I was still a GS-7 step 3. I had 6 months more experience and specialized training but I was already a couple thousand dollars behind new hires AND I was always going to be behind with a growing gap because promotions are based on time employed. It didn’t feel good but other engineers with more experience had gone through the same thing and they were having great careers. I would too, I was so sure.
But then in 2014 I met my soon-to-be husband. We fell in love and a year from the day I met him, we were married. Months after we wed I was pregnant. I was ecstatic. Everything I had hoped for I had. A husband that was supportive of my career and a great career with built-in opportunities for advancement. I was a GS-11 nearing the end of my one year and would be a GS-12 soon. I was already running entire projects by myself (which if you think about it so were my colleagues that had been hired with me as GS-7s, they were already 12’s so I wasn’t doing anything different than anyone that had the same number of years of experience as I did.). I thought the next step would be easy.
Except the next step still hasn’t come. To become a GS-12, you have to go through an oral board where other engineers and engineering supervisors ask you a ton of questions about your job till now. If you pass, you then become the coveted and fully qualified engineer. My chance at an oral board didn’t come.
Enter the wage gap
My baby was due around the same time as I would have been able to have an oral board. I had one lead engineer that wanted to do the oral board before I left for maternity leave but the project I was the head of was running in to worker delays. There was nothing anyone could have really done about it but it caused the project to run a little longer and ran right in to my due date.
My first child was born and I had 3 months of baby bliss. The federal government doesn’t offer maternity leave. I funded the leave with my own vacation time I had saved up over 3 plus years of work. When I came back to work, I didn’t start back at the same place I had left but that really didn’t change anything. It would be comparable to working at McDonald’s behind the grill flipping burgers to working at the fry station. The supervisor had assured me that he would be able to help me with this oral board and get me on track. I loved my new position and was doing great. Or so I thought.
In the first week of me returning my department head wanted to have meeting with me. In this example the department head would be the guy in charge of food prep. In this meeting he said he had lined up a job for me that he thought would be great for me since I was a new mom. It was in a brand new department that he thought would be great for me. I was a little confused because I had just returned from my leave this same week and had never put out that I was looking to leave my department. I asked some basic questions but got to the point quickly: I’m eligible for my GS-12, would I have an oral board here in this department then go or would I be hired on as a GS-12 there? He didn’t know but he would ask. The next day, he called me in to the office again and said that the other job didn’t have a plan for promotion and had assumed that I would be coming to them as a GS-12. They could work something out for me and depending on how much they liked me they would let me be a GS-12. Knowing that wasn’t normal, I asked more questions. This new job would be brand new. I didn’t want to have to go through 3 more years to get a promotion I was already eligible for now. He assured me that he would “take care of me” once I got there but I already knew that wasn’t possible. I would be going somewhere he would have no control over. I would go and be lost forever. I said no. He looked shocked like no one had told him no before and they probably hadn’t. He asked that I give it a week to think about it and I said no, I didn’t need a week, the answer was no. They didn’t have a plan and I needed a little more than a hope they would promote me.
I went back to my job and worked with my supervisor to get my promotion. But he kept changing it up on me. He kept wanting to change what my oral board subjects were going to be on. A different person from my same group was getting her oral board soon and he wanted mine to be like hers. I hadn’t done any of the same things she had done. I thought It was odd but I can learn and do anything so I bought in to it. But then he got called away for 6 months.
And took half of our group with him. The few of us that were left had to do all the same work plus the work of the people that left. Since he was gone there was no one to do my oral board with. Then I got hit with some great news. Baby 2 was on the way. I tried to work it out with my supervisor to get my oral board but he kept changing the structure of my board.
Baby 2 came and so did 3 months of maternity leave. I didn’t have nearly the same amount of time saved up so I asked for advanced leave that I am still paying off. When I returned I already knew what was going to happen and had told some close co workers my theory. They were a little skeptical but taken with the context of my many changing oral boards they thought I might have a point. In the middle of the conversation with my co workers our supervisor came over and said hey, the department head wanted my attention right now and wanted to meet with me. I gave a knowing look to my colleagues and went to the meeting. We had a new department head but his speech was almost verbatim the old one’s. I declined the offer right there. At the time I was still thinking I had a fair shake. I hadn’t had any bad work reviews, write ups and everyone said how great I was working. I wanted to be a little more careful with this department head because when he was just a supervisor he had been responsible for firing nearly all of his employees for one reason or anther. Remember how I said you had to have a reason? He was the kind of dude to always have a reason. One guy was fired for not working fast enough, one guy left because he had such a hard time getting a promotion. Two more guys left for the promotion reason as well. One sticks out because I was in charge of employee training and when an employee had a training concern I was supposed to handle it. When I asked his then-supervisor (my now department head) why he wasn’t getting the promotion he was more than deserving of the supervisor said that the employee was never there and he wasn’t interested in helping him get the promotion. He was right, he wasn’t there a lot. The employee was in the Army reserves and the time he was out wasn’t supposed to count against him. That’s when I knew something was up with this supervisor.
So it was crazy when the supervisor that had scattered his whole team to the winds and couldn’t get volunteers to come work for him became the department head AND I was in his office. I went home, talked to my husband who said it looked like trouble was coming and came back to decline the offer. If the other guy didn’t like being told no this guy surely took it to heart.
It was time to apply for new jobs. I went to one of my internships to see if they had a spot. They said it was looking great and they had a space for me but they needed to talk to my supervisor. They did and the opportunity dried up. I knew it would. They wouldn’t promote me where I was but wouldn’t let me leave. I had heard of similar incidents happening in the department.
What surprised me was the job offer that came next. It came though the department head. He had found this place for me to go. I went to the interview but the guy had the same script: If I like you you’ll get a promotion. I asked if there was a program for the promotion or what kind of milestones I would have to meet for him to like me. He didn’t have any idea and said he didn’t have a time period of which that looked like and that if things didn’t work out they would send me back to where I came from. I went back to my desk fully knowing that I wasn’t taking the job. I asked around to different people to ask how my name even came up for the job since it was so different from what I did and found out that the people they have been getting for the job can’t use computers well and frequently don’t show up to work. I had a reputation for at least coming to work everyday and by having an engineering degree they assumed I could use a computer.
I never told my supervisor that I went to the interview but within hours he had figured it out and set up a meeting with him, me and our department head to discuss the interview. In the meeting I said i didn’t want the job and told them why. Then the department head said I was such a great worker and that I was so super awesome that I should go home, talk to my husband and think about it over the weekend. That was a Wednesday.
On Thursday, first thing in the morning, I emailed the guy I interviewed with and said no, but please think of me if he had other openings in the future. He called my supervisor who called the department head and we all were in a meeting again. The department head was unusually upset that I had declined the job. I was already looking for a different job so what was wrong with the one he found for me. I told him all the reasons I did'n’t want the job and had said that since he and my supervisor thought I was such a super awesome person that I wanted to stay and pursue my promotion here. There was really nothing they could do about it. I was under no obligation to take the job and didn’t need their permission to decline it.
But I did start talking to Human Resources and set up an Alternative Dispute Resolution meeting with my department head so we could get down to why I wasn’t getting my promotion. It had been 2 and a half years since I was eligible.
My department head declined to go but sent my supervisor in his place. I came with notes in hand and was prepared. At the end of the meeting we had agreed on a timeline for my promotion with subjects he couldn’t change and was ready to sign to keep us both accountable. There was one big stop though. A management representative in the meeting wouldn’t let him sign because he didn’t have the authority to make this kind of agreement. The Rep looked me in the eyes and said I would have to accept a gentlemen’s agreement.
So even management wasn’t going to help me. I joined the union. Turns out my story had already traveled to other departments. Each time I was supposed to be getting my promotion they would have a different reason why I couldn’t get it but their timing was always connected to my pregnancies. I’ve been to work forums for women and told my story. I’ve had our annual EEO survey knowing that my department head would read it I laid bare everything that’s been happening. I’m being as vocal as I can be and people are turning blind eyes and giving unhearing ears.
But I’ve been finding out that other women are going through the same. Most women in my department leave after they start families. I am the only one that hasn’t. I wonder if they have had my experiences and just bowed out. I don’t know. But I have been a GS-11 for 4 years when most people are only there for 1. New engineers and been hired and promoted to GS-12 in the time that I have been eligible.
I am currently pregnant now. I know people will say that I should just wait until my promotion before I have another baby but how crazy is that? Should I never have any children? When will I get the promotion? What about the men? There have been plenty of men that have started families and their careers have not stalled. At all. So I really don’t know how this will turn out. I’m currently hiding my pregnancy and told two co-workers that I trust not to tell anyone on case I have a medical issue so they can inform anyone that may need to know. Please pray that all goes well.
It’s my sincere hope this look in to my career shows you how the wage gap doesn’t always look like getting hired at different pay levels. Sometimes it’s promotions drying up.