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We sat down with Miriam Morales, Director of Strategic Analytics at Memorial Hermann Health System, Mischer Neuroscience Institute, to get her thoughts on the Gender Pay Gap and how women can better negotiate what they are worth.

Miriam has over 15 years of clinical data experience primarily in academic medical centers. She has her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, her Master of Science in Biostatistics and her PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. In addition to her impressive education and work experience, Miriam likes to ride motorcycles with her husband, play piano and she loves watching sci-fi and horror movies.

Tell me about your background, and how you got into your current position?
That’s a long story so I’ll try to keep it short! My background is in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, and I got here in sort of a roundabout way. I was working on a different degree in Chemistry to go to into pharmaceuticals. I kept taking math classes to keep my GPA up so I could keep my scholarships for other things. Finally, by the time I got to the 5th advanced class that I didn’t need for Chemistry, one of my teachers pulled me aside and basically said “what are you doing?!” and I said “I don’t know, I think I want to be a pharmacist”. Through talking with her, and finding other opportunities in mathematics, computer science and biostatistics, I found out about public health and the type of work I am doing now, as a data scientist director.

So that’s what started it all - then I went for a couple of internships and open positions, and ended up in the medical center. I finished my masters, and then everything else just fell into place; getting experience, making connections in my network. But that’s how, with a math/stats degree, I made my way into the technology side - helping people understand their data. Although programming isn’t a big part of my job, I know the language and terminology, and my recent experience has been in quality and performance improvement, so I know from the quality administrators or the physicians what they need.  A lot of times I am the liaison between the technology teams and hospital administration or physicians, knowing what each side needs and wants, and I know how to communicate those things.

What challenges have you faced being a woman in IT?
I would say the biggest challenge was in school - being the only woman in the classroom. Overcoming gender predispositions about what I was actually doing there. I heard things like “you’re looking for a husband” or “can you really do this work?” and I had to work a lot harder than my male counterparts, just to prove that I know what I’m doing. Later on, challenges came from faculty that I worked with that already had an idea of what they thought I should be doing, and wanted to use me as a secretary rather than actual programming/analytics. They would ask me to edit Word documents, and I eventually had to say “yeah, I don’t do that. If you want a secretary you can hire one”.  I had to overcome those challenges, become more vocal, and focus on my career versus fitting myself into those types of predefined roles.

Women currently only hold 4% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 Companies. What factors do you think are contributing to the low number of women in the C-suites?
I think it depends on the company. For Oil and Gas, that’s been predominantly male for a long time and even today. From a healthcare perspective, the women were always nurses and the doctors were men. The administrators and MBA’s were all men as well. That has been changing over time as we are seeing more female physicians and female executives. Women now have the experience, the education and the connections to work their way up.

Our theme this month is the gender pay gap. What are your thoughts on this; does it exist, and if so, why do you think it does?
I think it still exists. Why? Because women maybe don’t know what they’re worth regarding salary, or how to negotiate that. There’s a preconceived idea that women will eventually go on maternity leave, so maybe they would need to be paid lower because they aren’t going to be there as much. Women need to educate themselves on what their male counterparts are earning. What I’ve noticed from a social perspective is that women will apply for a job when they feel they can master every single component of it. Whereas, men may look at a job and say “I can do half of that. I’ll apply and then just figure out the rest”. They are applying for higher level positions and getting higher level pay. For women, if you are looking at a job thinking you can do every single one of those things, you should be looking at the next job up. Know how to learn on the fly, and promote yourself for your skills that demonstrate you really are worth that extra pay. It’s about having a stretch goal and saying to yourself, “I know enough, and I’ll figure out the rest”. It’s about being able to sell yourself, showing that you have the knowledge and skills, and the rest you can learn on the job.

In your experience, what are some ways that companies can ensure fairness in pay?
So here, there is a whole compensation department within the HR. They look at certain job classifications - what the distribution is, the number of employees and experience - to ensure there is fairness in compensation. If something doesn’t seem right, there is someone you can go and talk to about your concerns. Or, if you want to know what a certain distribution is and how you fit into that, you can talk to them. It’s all a privileged, confidential conversation so no one will know you are asking. Not everyone knows about it, so I recommend checking to see if your company offers something like that.

What tips do you have for women on negotiating pay increases?
Know what you bring to the table - not just your skillset, but your communication skills, your relationship building skills, your ability to bring different resources or teams together, and to have them work effectively. Having a good understanding of your products, deliverables, and your portfolio of what you have done to-date are also important. Whether it’s a new interview, or an existing boss, communicate these things in a way they will understand. A lot of times people communicate in the way that they themselves think. You have to think about who your audience is, and give information to your manager in the way they like to receive it. If you are at a place in your career where you are asking for a raise from the same boss 2 or 3 times, maybe it’s not what you are asking, but how you are asking it. Figure out what your manager wants to see, whether it’s a presentation, a graph, a bunch of lists, etc. Do a lot of work upfront on getting information together for why you should get a raise, and be prepared to explain the tangibles that you’re going to bring back to the group, the team or the organization. Identify your sponsors, and find ways to help everyone else on the team in a way that they are telling your boss how amazing you are, and what you have done to help them.

What advice do you have for women wanting to move up in their careers into a management position?
There is a book written by an Executive here at Memorial Hermann named Rod Brace, called "Four Conversations". It’s a very short book about how people communicate and how to strategically connect with individuals with purpose for team engagement and leadership. Understanding how to engage all members of your team really helps how you are perceived, not only by your leader, but by your team as well. Sometimes a promotion isn’t just your boss’s decision, it’s a group decision. If you’re not seen as a team player, or the one who consistently meets their deliverables and is a natural leader, it will be hard to be noticed for the promotion. For anyone who feels like they have been passed over for a promotion, think about how you are being perceived by your group. Do they know how hard you are working? Do they see you come in late and leave early, but you’re working from home? They won’t know you’re working from home unless you tell them. Is someone taking credit for work that you have done or contributed to? Make sure you are always getting credit for what you do.

You will see a lot of times, women get stuck in the same position for years and they are working really hard, but someone else passes them up for a promotion who doesn’t do nearly as much. It’s not that you aren’t doing a good job - it’s that you’re not doing a good job of communicating to your team what you are contributing. These skills aren’t un-learnable either; when I first started in my career I wasn’t very sociable, I was shy and I wasn’t use to presentations. You learn about how to communicate in different situations and scenarios over time, and how to work with different types of people.

The second thing is changing your thinking. A lot of people are good at being told what to do, and given specific tasks, or doing things from an operations perspective. This is great because you need detail-oriented people. But you have to figure out how to think in terms of strategy. Managers, and especially Directors have to think more about strategy than the day-to-day details. That change in how you think can be very difficult. When I became a manager, I had to re-train my brain into thinking about the big picture, and what that means for my team, what that means in terms of resources, and how to properly communicate all of that to my peers and my managers.