It's a fair point; in fact, I'd just had a conversation with my husband last week about whether the expression was annoying. The email sent me into emotional distress for a few hours, because I hate criticism, however gentle or useful. It also got me thinking more about race, gender, engineering culture, and subconscious expectations.
The funny thing is that I'd normally say something like what George suggested, trying to be helpful without overstepping my bounds. I only started using the pay grade expression after hearing it from another colleague. "Vladimir" has a reputation for not playing well with others, and his rudeness has driven me and others to tears in the past. On one occasion, he referred to an architecture issue as "above my pay grade," and I was delighted at his humor when I'd expected his usual aggressive and unhelpful response. That's when I started using the phrase myself.
My husband, a former engineer himself, said, "You know, if a guy had said that, I don't think I'd have noticed among the noise that engineers always say." Here's the deal: engineers are snarky. We're always trying to be more clever than the next person, and even better if the cleverness is slightly insulting in a good-natured way. But I imagined a female coworker saying that a decision was above her pay grade, and it did sound passive-aggressive, as if she were trying to make a point about her salary or position. I imagined a male coworker saying the same thing: no judgment. In the absence of any other tension, it comes off as a funny, slightly self-deprecating remark.
George likes and respects me; of that I am sure. I know he was trying to be helpful, and he was. I'm not going to talk about my pay grade anymore. But I also wonder whether George would have sent that email if I weren't an Asian woman. Would he have sent it to Vladimir? Given that I reacted negatively to the hypothetical female coworker myself, given my husband's admission that gender matters, I think it's a fair question. Since George isn't my manager, and he and I don't interact often enough that I'd expect him to care much about my career, perhaps he was expressing his own annoyance in the most constructive way he could find.
Marin Alsop, the only female conductor of a major symphony orchestra, has described how she's had to learn to make different gestures than her male counterparts to get the kind of sound she wants:
"The hardest thing for me is always to get a big sound from the orchestra without being very demanding or apologising. As a woman, if you're too aggressive people think, 'She's so overpowering. What's she on us for?'. But if a man does the same gesture, it's regarded as strong and virile. [ . . .] I have worked really hard to make my gestures less threatening."Richard Sherman's post-game trash talk has branded him a "thug" and much worse. However unsportsmanlike his behavior, it's clear that his race and the image of the angry black man changed the way it was seen.
It's not that every criticism of a racial minority or a woman is racist or sexist in its basis. It's that perception and expectation are so closely linked that there isn't such a thing as true objectivity. So the best we can do, the best we can ever do, is be aware of the assumptions we make, question them, and check ourselves when appropriate.