In 2000, Monique Thompson served as a named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, Donaldson vs Microsoft Corp. Monique (whose last name was Donaldson at the time of the lawsuit) was a Program Manager at Microsoft. According to the lawsuit, she asserted that female and African American employees at Microsoft were “hired at a disproportionately low salary level, were assigned to disproportionately low grade levels at initial hire, were inadequately promoted to higher grade levels during the course of their employment, and received disproportionately low raises, bonuses, and stock options.”
The assertions found in Donaldson v. Microsoft Corp. court filings are consistent with research on how female and Black talent experience tech workplaces (Kapor Center’s Tech Leavers Study, Leaky Tech Pipeline Report, and Black Tech Workforce Infographic Report). They also align with claims found in recent lawsuits filed by Black women against tech companies. Nevertheless, Monique has had a thriving career in tech since filing the case more than 20 years ago. And perhaps because of her experiences, she’s also become a Certified Professional and Leadership Coach through the World Coach Institute, a published Author, and a Certified Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) psychological practitioner.
As we recognize Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, I wanted to get Monique’s perspective on how the workforce has evolved since filing her lawsuit 20 years prior. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which falls on August 3, 2021, represents the approximate day a Black woman must work into the new year to earn what white non-Hispanic male colleagues earned at the end of the previous year. While the day focuses on the pay gap, it is a reminder of broader issues that disadvantage Black women in the workplace. I tracked-down Monique for an interview, and here’s what she had to say.
Q. You haven’t stopped speaking up against unfair treatment. What has this looked like for you over the past 20 years?
A. I’ve had a great career and have worked for some of the world’s largest technology companies, but it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve both seen and experienced a lot of disparities in how people of color and women are treated — whether it’s pay, job assignments, or even access to senior leaders. Because of this, I have led ERGs, which has been really helpful in connecting people of color within organizations to support one another. I’ve also been working behind the scenes to help improve the experiences of Black women entering tech. This has included working within companies to create and launch mentorship, sponsorship, and professional coaching programs while advocating for transparency and accountability.
Q. You’ve continued working in the tech industry over the last 20 years. What’s changed for Black and female talent? What’s stayed the same?
A. Unlike 20 years ago, we’re now having open conversations about the disparities in treatment and pay of Black female talent. Social media has been a catalyst for change — the experiences of Black women can no longer be dismissed by the tech industry. We can now raise voices that were previously muted and release a collective sigh as we finally begin to have conversations about the impact of systemic racism in corporate America and how it impacts Black females. But in some ways, things have also gotten more difficult because having a voice doesn’t matter if the right people aren’t listening or don’t care enough to make significant and long-lasting change. Today, Black women have been reassured about what we knew to be true in our hearts all along — it’s not us.
It’s not our fault that we have to work twice as hard, prove ourselves over and over again, and very carefully walk the tightrope between being driven and being assertive — while risking being labeled as aggressive, intimidating, or “the angry Black woman.” We now know that our experiences are not unique to us as individuals, but they are unique for us as a group.
We have a long way to go for true change and equity in the workplace — unlike the “Me Too” movement, we have yet to see the unprecedented accountability, consequences, and support that movement has yielded for women who have been sexually assaulted in the workplace. Black women still have to “prove” the disparity instead of there being a corporate acceptance that it exists. An easy proof-point is that Black women are still not paid the same as many of our female counterparts. Women make $0.82 for every $1 that men make, and Black women make just $0.63 for every dollar made by white male counterparts. We do the same and oftentimes more work as our white male counterparts, and on average, face almost a million dollar disparity over the course of a Black woman’s career.
Q. What should corporate leaders and board members do to advance equity in the industry?
A. Corporate leaders and board members must play a significant role in advancing equity. First, they need to make greater representation of Black talent and other people of color on boards and in C-level positions. We aren’t in those positions for a lack of talent — we’re not in those positions because of a lack of access and appetite for our presence. Corporate leaders and board members have the authority to diversify their ranks. We need them to have the desire to do this as well. Next, they need to create systemic and actionable DEI change in corporations with monetary accountability tied to them — and make their goals, metrics, and results public as part of quarterly company updates. Finally, corporate leaders and board members need to change the way DEI is managed and run in corporations. The current model isn’t working and needs an overhaul.
Q. What advice would you give to Black women or any other person that may face a higher risk of experiencing bias in tech?
A. That’s a great question. I’ve seen so much and have a lot to say about this! I’m going to provide some specific and actionable things I’ve learned over the years.
- Make sure you have your stuff together — don’t make performance an issue. Just because you’re performing well, it doesn’t mean you won’t be faced with claims to suggest otherwise. You’ll want to keep data to prove that you have been meeting or exceeding expectations for your role and job level.
- Document, document, document. Keep accurate records and accounts of agreements, instances, and issues. This could include notes from 1:1’s along with accolades from your manager, peers, and cross-functional teammates. If you receive a verbal accolade, ask the person if they would be willing to provide the feedback to you via email or through your company’s official recognition program.
- Speak up. Silence is not your friend nor is it a friend of change. It can be scary, daunting, and challenging, but going through the process to convey unfair and unlawful practices can help change situations and systems for the better (which is why it’s important to have your information in order). Poor treatment can lead to a feeling of loss of control of what is going on with your career, your ability to provide for your family and your life. Speaking-up gives you your power back and helps give you clarity about what you may want to do next.
- Surround yourself with supporters who have shared experiences. Having a Sisterhood in your corner, especially if it includes others who have faced similar challenges, can help keep you grounded, provide encouragement, and keep you focused on productive next steps.
- Plan for success. This is so important, it should be first and last! You can plan for success by getting a mentor (someone who coaches you on career, company, and culture) and a sponsor (someone who is well-respected with a sphere of influence in the company that can speak on your behalf when you’re NOT in the room). These two types of people in your corner can go a long way to help positively shape your career. The mentor can provide you with insight on how to navigate the culture and grow your career. The sponsor can advocate on your behalf — for both opportunities for career growth and if you are ever faced with a challenging situation.
What can you do?
Speaking with Monique made me think about countless other Black women who have confided in me about their work environment. They’ve shared the dream of entering and succeeding in tech, but have faced the reality of navigating a workplace culture that disadvantages them. The struggle for pay equity is just one example of this. People like Monique Thompson have spoken up on behalf of Black women everywhere — and you can too.
As we recognize Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on August 3, here are a few practices that you can propose in your organization to support Black women:
- Conduct a compensation audit and adjust pay accordingly. A compensation audit will help identify any salary anomalies among employees within job categories and levels and help HR take the necessary rectifying measures to make people whole.
- Standardize compensation bands by role and level. Publishing compensation bands in job descriptions helps job seekers understand what their compensation would be before going through the interview process. This can save time for all parties if the salary range does meet expectations. It also provides clarity to current and potential employees who do not have access to market rate compensation data on a company.
- Be transparent about salaries. The transparency that comes with reporting salaries helps everyone understand how pay is distributed across talent. Access to this information helps Black women understand the value of their skills and better positions them to advocate for pay equity. Take a look at reporting for Intel, a large tech company which reports by EEO-1 category, and Buffer, a tech startup that reports by employee and includes their salary formula. These approaches can serve as a starting point for your team as they develop a reporting system for your organization.
- Lift as you climb. Black women need access to a network of supporters who can inform their strategy to negotiate compensation. You can be part of this network. Share your insights, experiences, and best tips for navigating the negotiation process. And as an ally, if a Black woman asks what you make, tell her. This information will be helpful as she advocates for pay equity.
- Address the root cause of inequity. Employees don’t want to experience circumstances that would prompt a lawsuit, and employers don’t want to spend resources fighting them. Avoid this all together by addressing the root cause. This can begin with a facilitated discussion among executive leaders to better understand why Black women experience pay disparities in your workplace.
Learn more about Monique Thompson at https://www.moniquelthompson.com
Hear from Monique Thompson on August 3 during the virtual event, “Black Women Equal Pay Day: A Speaker Panel.” Learn more and register at https://lu.ma/payblackwomen
Read more about how Black women experience the workplace in my 2020 Black Women Equal Pay Day article, If Not Now, Then When? Stepping Up for Black Women in the Workforce.
If you work in tech advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging and are looking to connect with peers for support, join the Kapor Center’s Diversity Advocates professional learning community.