Engineer Took All the Right Steps But Still Didn’t Receive Fair Pay

By Cheryl Hughes

Cheryl Hughes headshot

Cheryl Hughes

I was a divorced mother of two when I began pursuing an engineering degree in 1982. I had to overcome many obstacles such as an overwhelming male majority in the field, time management constraints, child care dilemmas, and finding a balance between motherhood and being a student. However, there was one obstacle I couldn’t overcome — pay inequity.

I was hired by a manufacturer on February 1, 1995, as an associate engineer with a starting salary of $39,600. When I asked for more money, I was told it was not in the budget. I decided to accept the offer and prove that I was worthy of a higher salary.

While working there, I befriended a white male engineer. He had asked the salaries of our white co-workers. In 1996, he asked my salary; I replied, “$44,423.22.” He told me that I, an African American woman, was being discriminated against. The next day, he gave me pamphlets from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite learning that I was underpaid, I worked diligently to improve my skills. My performance evaluations were good. When a young white woman was hired at my firm, my friend told me that she earned $2,000 more than I did. At this time, I had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and three years of electrical engineering experience. This young woman had one year of co-op experience and a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

In 1998, the company decided to outsource all technical assistance centers. All employees in the centers — myself included — were told to apply for new jobs internally or look at other companies. I met with my director to discuss my options and was soon offered a sixth-level promotional opportunity. When I interviewed for this position, the manager said that the job was “boring.” I declined the promotion.

At that point, I was the only engineer left waiting for an offer or facing termination. I had applied for 70 engineering positions with the company. In November 1998, I accepted an offer for a temporary position with a department in the company that employed individuals with business degrees until I could find something in engineering.

My manager, a white woman, spoke of her experience with gendered pay inequity. During one of our meetings she said, “Today I received your paperwork. I cannot believe that you only earn $50,000 a year with a master’s degree in electrical engineering.” I replied, “You thought things were bad being a white woman. Imagine if I colored your skin and curled your hair.” During my annual review, my manager submitted a 15-percent increase, but her request was denied.

For more than three years, I complained about pay inequity and lack of promotional opportunities to my manager, director, group vice president, and human resources. Since my complaints were not resolved, I decided to write a 14-page, single-space report with 15 exhibits on workplace discrimination.

Six weeks after mailing the report, the human resources director requested a meeting and we met several times. During our last meeting, she asked me to consider a 10-month separation agreement. I declined because it would have meant giving up the right to sue. On August 1, 2001, I was terminated.

I sued the company in both state and federal district courts. Both cases were dismissed. I appealed these cases in state and federal appellate courts. Again, both cases were dismissed, and I was out $27,000. I decided not to go to the Michigan Supreme Court due to their rulings against women and minorities.

For 16 years after that I worked as an engineer receiving taxable income of $767,710.27. From the day I began working as an engineer through retirement, my losses would be in excess of $1 million in earnings.  Some would have you believe that women earn less because of career choices, not negotiating their salaries, and leaving the industry to have children. I chose a lucrative field of study, tried to negotiate my salary without success, and stayed in the workforce with children.

Women subjected to pay inequity suffer during their working years through retirement. With pay equity, women can improve the economy, save for retirement, live in an area with a great school system, finance college for their children, and most importantly, achieve the American dream. Women, we must stand together and demand pay equity. If not, this issue will still be discussed when the 50-year-old Equal Pay Act turns 100.

Reprinted with permission from The American Association of University Women (AAUW).

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