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How the founder of Ladies Get Paid handled the question 'whose wife are you?' at a networking event

Wasserman explains how she turned past experiences of gender discrimination into action with her organization, Ladies Get Paid, which helps further the professional and financial advancement of women.
Ladies Get Paid founder Claire Wasserman
Ladies Get Paid founder Claire WassermanStephanie Geddes

The following is an adapted excerpt from Claire Wasserman’s new book “Ladies Get Paid: The Ultimate Guide to Breaking Barriers, Owning Your Worth, and Taking Command of Your Career”

Before “Ladies Get Paid,” the book, came Ladies Get Paid, the organization. It was born from three pivotal moments in my life, the first of which happened at an advertising festival, where CEOs of major brands socialized (and drank) with those who wanted their business. Most of them were men. At the time I worked for a professional platform that connected creatives with jobs, and I was there to find clients. The festival opened with an outdoor cocktail party.

“Whose wife are you?”

He was tall, probably around 60 years old, dressed in an expensive-looking white linen suit. It had been barely five minutes since I’d walked into the party. I gritted my teeth and stretched my lips into what I hoped was a smile. “I’m here on business.” This was going to be a long week.

And it was: around-the-clock networking is tiring. But what was even more exhausting was the invisible (though sometimes obvious) imbalance of power between genders. Men greatly outnumbered women and their seniority dwarfed ours. I needed these men to send me their business, but so many saw me, and many of the other women there, not as valuable professional connections but as people to party with. Repeatedly, I had to wrestle the conversation back to a place that was relevant to my work or simply back to a place where I felt comfortable. It was draining, but I’d done this dance before. In fact, I’d been doing it my entire career.

Something profound happened toward the end of the festival. Needing to pee (and needing a break), I sought refuge in the women’s restroom. It turned out I wasn’t the only one. Crowded in there were women of all ages, huddled together, connecting and commiserating. They traded business cards and tips on who to avoid and who was actually serious about networking. These women had come to the festival to get sh-- done; it just happened to be getting done in the ladies’ room. I spent some time there recharging, then took a deep breath and went back out, into the fray.

Ladies Get Paid founder Claire Wasserman.Ashley Louise

After the week was over, I slept for two days straight. I felt demoralized and a bit disgusted as I replayed each unsettling interaction over and over again, from Mr. Whose Wife Are You to the guy who slurred “You’re hot” when I pitched him a business idea. Then my disgust turned inward. What had I done to attract this kind of attention? Was my dress too short? Had I been too friendly? This was an all-too-familiar loop, a constant refrain throughout my whole career.

But for the first time, something short-circuited my self-doubt. For years, I’d struggled to be taken seriously as a successful, ambitious woman, questioning myself in the process. One memory stood out in particular: I was at a dinner with a man a colleague had introduced me to, thinking we might partner. Halfway through the evening, he grabbed my hand and pulled me in to kiss him. I snatched my arm back. “Excuse me?!” I said in disbelief. The man looked utterly confused. “But you gave me your business card!” he sputtered. Besides the fact that it was a troubling misinterpretation of signals, what stayed with me was the fact that I was being perceived as a potential sexual partner instead of a professional one, despite every indication that I was there to do business. And as a result, networking with this person, who otherwise could have been valuable for my work, was an opportunity I would not pursue. It also made me feel like sh--.

I had a realization: How many other times had I missed opportunities not because of a lack of ability or performance, but because I was a woman? How many hours had I wasted agonizing about how to maneuver among men like these in this world that they had created? I thought of all the energy I’d wasted seeking approval from the men around me. I couldn’t continue like this; something needed to change.

I opened my laptop and googled three words: “women,” “work,” and “inequality.” What I learned shook me to my core:

✦ The majority of today’s college graduates are women, yet less than 22 percent of us make it past middle management.

✦ The wage gap, which is usually referred to as being 78–80 cents to the man’s dollar, is not the reality for everyone. Depending on your race (and a myriad of other factors), it can be so much worse. Black women make between 63–68 cents on the dollar, while Hispanic women make a mere 55 cents on the dollar.

I was shocked. I felt angry. And on top of that, I was ashamed for not knowing it was that bad, and that reeked of my privilege. I’d grown up being told I could do and be whatever I dreamed of, that our work- places are a meritocracy and that the fight for equality was over and won by my mother’s generation. I was finally seeing this was not the reality. And I wanted to do something about it.

As I continued to research women and the workplace, I discovered an entire vocabulary that put words to things I’d always felt but hadn’t known how to articulate. I learned about emotional labor, the contortionism that women—especially women of color—perform to fit into and accommodate environments where they are not the status quo. All of this was enlightening, but it was also overwhelming. With such systemic, entrenched bias, what could I as an individual possibly do?

A year later, Leta, an art director I knew, approached me. She’d recently found out that a male art director friend of hers was charging almost double what she was. This discovery made her realize how little she knew about pricing and how important it was for this to be a larger, more open conversation with our peers. She was also concerned that the lack of transparency might mean other people were underpricing themselves, which in turn could be bringing down wages for everyone.

Because I was the director of marketing for a platform that helped people find work, I was in a position to bring information and awareness to a large network of people. Leta wondered if there was something I could do to help women learn what they should be paid. It began to dawn on me that in so many ways, money symbolized much of what I’d been agonizing over in the past year. Money—and having the same opportunities to earn just as much as men—was about more than a number. It represented value, worth, and above all, power. All things that, as women, we have historically been denied.

This conversation with Leta happened during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. As I thought about organizing an event for women to talk about money, I became intrigued by these town halls the candidates were hosting as an alternative to the format of a typical panel. I envisioned one made up of women of different backgrounds and professions, trading stories and advice about money in an open forum, essentially democratizing a subject that had always seemed to be the domain of experts (men). More important, it could finally get us talking about a topic that was taboo, that was considered crass but that men seemed able to navigate with ease. Maybe if one of us spoke up, others would follow. All we needed was a bit of encouragement.

To get people to sign up, I asked six women I admired if they would be open to sharing their money stories. I also asked each of them to recommend a few women they thought should be there. For every woman I was introduced to, I asked if they could recommend another woman who might want to attend. This went on until we reached capacity. The day of the event, 100 women came. They crowded together on couches, spilling out onto the floor, passing around bottles of wine, buzzing with energy. It reminded me of the ladies’ room at the advertising festival.

It was my first public speaking experience and I knew I didn’t have all the answers. I was there to learn just as much as they were. I told the room that we would get out of the event only as much as we were willing to give; to receive help meant they had to offer it. We raised our glasses to one another, and we began.

It was like a cork shooting out of a champagne bottle. One story begat another as these women opened up to one another and to themselves. They shared stories of disappointments and struggles, missed opportunities, denied promotions. There were lots of tears, but lots of high fives, too. One woman stood up and declared, “I’m an illustrator and make a sh-- ton of money.” She got a standing ovation.

I was right; this conversation was about so much more than the dollars in our pockets. It was about solidarity. It was about self-worth. It was also about taking action to right the wrongs that we’d been laboring under. We would no longer wait (and hope) to be rewarded. Money was the first step, a tangible thing that could mark progress on what was sure to be a long road ahead. To close the wage gap, we could start with ourselves, by advocating for our worth. But for all of us to rise, we had to work together.

Three hours later, the event was technically over, but no one was leaving. I was getting antsy since the venue was charging me by the hour. “Go home!” I shouted as I turned off the lights. Everyone reluctantly shuffled out, and I could hear them discussing what bar to go to; they didn’t want the conversation to end.

As one of the women walked out, she pulled me aside. “This,” she said, motioning around the room, “you should do this.” I didn’t know what she meant, but something magical had happened that night.

On my way home, I felt electric. That energy in the room was coursing through my veins and my mind was racing. It was over a year since I’d googled “workplace inequality,” and I thought that maybe, just maybe, this was the start of something big. Something that could lead toward making things right. While I didn’t quite know what was next, perhaps the first step was simply for us to share our stories as we had done that night.

Over the course of the next 12 months, I organized 250 town halls in 19 cities, bringing together thousands of women to talk about money, power, work, and self-worth. And every time a woman got up to speak, she discovered she was not alone. As I watched, I knew there had to be a way to harness that strength we have when we come together. I wanted to see it move beyond those rooms and those town halls, to build an even larger collective that could allow us to learn from one another, encourage one another, and share practical tools and professional guidance to get us where we wanted to be. The town halls were our catharsis, but with no action afterward, all that inspiration and energy would be wasted. And nothing would change.

While organizing these events, I witnessed the power in peer-to-peer sharing, but I also saw that there was a great need for concrete tools to fix actual problems. One topic that kept coming up in the town halls all across the country was insecurity surrounding salary negotiation. Teaching more women how to negotiate their salaries wasn’t a big-picture structural change, but it could at least start moving the needle in the short term. As I fit the pieces together, I knew there was something special happening, but what I didn’t know was that a movement was being born. This one area of actionable change became the cornerstone of our movement, and a springboard for accessing—and improving—broader issues impacting women in the workplace.

As of this writing, the Ladies Get Paid community has grown to more than 100,000 women who are all working together to advance women in the workplace.

It’s important to note that as women we are bound together by our marginalized status. But my experience in the workplace as a white cisgender woman is not the same as that of a Black woman, or a Hispanic woman, or a woman with a disability, or a trans woman, or any of the countless women in groups pushed to the fringes of society, who have been fighting these battles for generations. I firmly believe that we have progressed only as far as those who still struggle the most among us. If we’re going to make meaningful change, it has to benefit all of us, not just some of us. And we have to do it together.

Named one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Women, Claire Wasserman is an educator, author, and founder of Ladies Get Paid, a book, organization, and global community that champions the professional and financial advancement of women. She is also the host of John Hancock’s podcast, “Friends Who Talk About Money”. You can learn more about Claire at clairewasserman.com and by following her on Instagram at @clairegetspaid.