One of the most valuable financial conversations I ever had in my career as a CFD Engineer was with another professional who employed engineers like me (data engineers, simulation engineers, software engineers, and mechanical engineers).
He asked me, point-blank: “What the heck are you doing working for Mr. X?”
“What do you mean?” I replied. “I’m loyal to Mr. X. I know he’s a bit of a character, but he’s always supported me.”
His response shook the foundations of what “support” meant in a professional context.
He said, “I just think you should know what I pay my engineers who work fewer hours than you do. It’s Y to Z per year.”
That range, Y to Z, was two to three times what I was getting paid... for less work.
What makes this even more heartbreaking (other than the obvious conclusion that I was being taken advantage of) was the fact that this was already six years into my career.
Salary gaps are real in software engineering
On average, software engineers in the United States make $86,094 USD, but the range of salaries is huge: from $62,000 USD to $127,000 USD in base pay. Contrast that with the average salary in Canada at $75,270 CAD (or roughly $57,000 USD), with an accompanying range of $54,000 CAD to $102,000 CAD per year (roughly $41,000 USD to $77,000 USD).
As you can tell, salaries vary greatly depending on location. For example, if you’re interviewing for a job in Silicon Valley, you can expect to make more than at a smaller start-up in a less competitive tech industry. (If you have multiple degrees as I did, you should also be asking for more than the average salary above because, dang it, you’re worth it! More on that later.)
When you look at the tech industry as a whole, the pay gap between women and men is sizable. In Canada, when 2016 census data was analyzed by The Brookfield Institute, women made on average $19,750 CAD less than males with the same education. In addition, non-white females and indigenous skilled workers consistently made less than their white male counterparts.
Back to software engineering pay disparities specifically, the average gap in the United States was $8,559 USD, meaning female software engineers make significantly less per year than male software engineers. To add to that: According to a recent study by Hired, women are offered starting salaries that are up to 45 percent less than those of their male counterparts. And sadly, women tend to undervalue their worth at work. The same study found that women ask for less pay than an equivalently qualified man a whopping 66 percent of the time.
Why (all) software engineers need to talk about money
The only way that we can begin to right the ship and close these pay gaps is to start being more transparent about what we make as engineers. Without proper data, we can’t make informed decisions about where to work and what starting salary to expect. I know it’s taboo to talk about money, but it really shouldn’t be. As engineers, we need to support one another. If you’re making more than your colleague with the same qualifications, you should feel comfortable telling them that, so that they can consider their options regarding how to make what they’re worth.
Beyond fostering a richer culture of communication among engineers, we need to get comfortable with the idea of researching common salary levels before we take that next job or show up for our next performance review at year-end. Embarrassingly, I didn’t do any research when I had completed my second Master’s Degree in engineering and computational fluid dynamics; I thought I was just lucky to have a job, and I took the first offer they gave me. Looking back now, I’m sure that I didn’t ask for as much as my male engineer colleagues – even those with fewer qualifications than I had.
It’s particularly important for those of us in underrepresented groups in software engineering to start talking to our white male friends in the industry and find out what we could be making. It’s crucial for women, minorities, and indigenous people to get educated and head into negotiations with a clear expectation of getting fair pay. But I also believe it shouldn’t have to be all on us: If everyone in the high-paid biz of engineering (white male engineers included) were to adopt additional transparency about salaries, it would ensure everyone is getting paid fairly, despite differing levels of negotiation and communication prowess.
How to ask about engineering salaries and what to avoid
Use the data here as a starting point, but then go out and talk with your colleagues, mentors, and online contacts. Ask them what you should be aiming for when it comes to your starting salary. That way, they won’t feel like they need to disclose their own earnings, and they’ll be more open about what they know when it comes to industry pay.
Keep in mind that many engineers will not be comfortable opening up about their salaries because they've never done so in the past. These professionals may be more open to talking about other forms of remuneration, such as vacation days and paid sick leave, as well as possible healthcare benefits and other perks. These are important details to consider when you do receive data on comparable salaries.
Incredible tact is required to start broaching these conversations. The more mutual trust that exists between engineers, the easier these conversations about salaries will be. But if you don't know the other party well, or they are a direct superior in your organization, having a frank salary conversation will border on inappropriate. Use your gut instincts and avoid talking about salaries when it doesn't feel right.
In addition, make sure that when you do find out about comparable salaries from your industry colleagues, you use that data to lift everyone up, not to bring anyone down. It can be very tempting to think that your colleague doesn't work as hard as you or isn't as valuable a company asset, so they should make less money than you. Check your inner voice when this happens and, remember, this reconnaissance is to better the collective. You deserve to make as much as a similarly qualified colleague, and they are worth that money too.
I’de love for stories like mine to disappear
There were many reasons why I left my career in software engineering and simulation. The nicknames alone were probably enough – I witnessed coworkers lovingly refer to me as “Flow Girl” or the “Aero Chick.” Frequently, emails addressed to my entire engineering team began with the salutation “Gents.” I grew tired of being constantly talked over and ignored in meetings; I grew irritated at executives’ ever-present shock that a woman was working in such a male-dominated space.
But one of the largest reasons I left was knowing that I’d never be paid what I was worth and that the fight was one I was unlikely to ever win. (The low financial ceiling was especially true, given that I was the only female software engineer at the company.) I tried, and I failed. But if I had known earlier what I know now, I believe I could have negotiated better at the very beginning, so that later on in my career, I might have been further ahead.
My biggest hope is that when software engineers like my formerly naïve, bright-eyed-and-busy-tailed self go into their next job interview or salary negotiation, they’ll go in armed with the information and self-confidence they need to not sell themselves short.
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