In our series My 6-Figure Paycheck, women making more than $100,000 open up about how they got there and what exactly they do. We take a closer look at what it feels like to be a woman making six-figures — when only 5% of American women make that much, according to the U.S. Census — with the hope it will give women insight into how to better navigate their own career and salary trajectories.
Job: System Engineer in Aerospace
Location: Denver, CO
Degree: Bachelor's and Master's in Engineering and Management
First Salary: $48,000
Current Salary: $142,000 plus $9,000 in bonuses
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
"I didn’t have a specific field in mind, but I envisioned being a powerful lady in a killer suit marching into meetings with a briefcase. I have always been drawn to the idea of being an important woman in charge of things."
What did you study in college?
"I got my bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary engineering and management. In the first two years of my career, I got a master's certificate in the same field through a development program."
Did you have to take out student loans?
"Yes, I paid for my entire undergraduate degree myself. I graduated with just under $70,000 in debt. I paid off my final loan last year!
"I had been focused on saving for a house in my late twenties, so I wasn’t as aggressive with my loan payments as I might have been otherwise. My master's was paid for by my company."
Have you been working at this job since you graduated from college?
"I have worked for the same company my entire career, but across many different programs and business units (it’s a very large company). All of my work has been in the defense industry, but across different government customers and technologies. I have spent the majority of my time working in aerospace, but earlier in my career I worked in ground-based radar systems, and in my late twenties, I took a two-and-a-half year tangent into autonomous-vehicle testing."
How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
"I develop rehearsal and training campaigns to prepare teams for the successful launch of satellites. During actual launch campaigns, I am a technical team leader with overall responsibility for the health and safety of the satellite, acting as the belly button for a team of subsystem specialists who are focused on smaller aspects of the satellite’s performance and operational success."
Did you negotiate your salary?
"I’ve negotiated the salary for nearly every job I’ve taken. When I first read about the research that women are more likely to accept an initial offer, and men more likely to ask for more, it profoundly affected me.
"I don’t ever want to be taken advantage of or short-changed in any way. I will often think to myself: 'Would anyone have a problem if a man did this?' And the answer is always no. So I am constantly emboldening myself to go after what my performance and skill level deserves."
Is your current job your “passion”? If not, what is?
"I have many passions, including but not limited to: reading contemporary literature, estate-sale treasure hunting, mountain biking, encouraging young women to go into STEM fields, and supporting local social justice initiatives.
"I do not rely on my job alone to fulfill me, but I do love my work, and I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from doing my job well. My salary also allows me to financially support causes I believe in, such as Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and Colorado Legal Aid for example, so that helps."
If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
"I wouldn’t. Even the jobs that eventually made me miserable were important in helping me understand what aspects of a job really matter to me. I have changed positions about every two-and-a-half years. Some may say I have bounced around, but doing so helped me get to the salary I have now. I am certain I wouldn’t have had the same negotiating power if I had been stagnant."
What professional advice would you give your younger self?
"I would advise my younger self to find and use mentors sooner. If you’re at a place with good people, there should be lots of folks who are willing to mentor you and act as a resource for your professional development. And if you aren’t, get out of there — you deserve better!
"It took me a while to become comfortable being vulnerable with people more senior than me and admit when I might need guidance. Don’t let your pride prevent you from creating opportunities to learn from others. Seek out people whose style you want to emulate, or who are really good at something that doesn’t come naturally to you, and ask if they will help you learn from them. Build and maintain relationships with people you admire. Your network can be one of your biggest external assets."
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