A friend recently shared with me a beautifully written commencement speech by Abby Wambach, retired soccer player extraordinaire. She is an Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, among many other accolades. Suffice it to say, she is awesome. Her speech, delivered to the Barnard University Class of 2018, focused on the obstacles that women face in the world, particularly as it relates to the pay gap. A few things truly resonated with me. The first being about the long term costs of the pay gap:
“Over time, the pay gap means women are able to invest less and save less so they have to work longer. When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, let's be clear. It costs us our very lives.”
The second being a misplaced sense of gratitude: “Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us.”
Someone with it all - someone who retired at the top of their game in a sport that many play but few become world class athletes in - also suffering from the pay gap, gratitude, and value? If someone like that has struggled with those things, mustn’t that be a challenge for us all?
Abby’s big take home message (at least as I understood it) was this: women must be there for each other, like wolves in a wolf pack. By this she means - women must lead other women to a future that is female and full of possibility, and that the victory of a single woman can be a victory for all, if the wolf pack comes together to support itself.
Her speech made me realize I hadn't thought that hard on my own pay gap and experiences therein. So I reflected back on the first real job I ever had. In high school, I took a lifeguarding class and became certified the first chance I was able. A male friend of mine had also just become certified, and was able to get a job as a lifeguard near where we lived. And by my luck, he was able to get me a position as well. I was overjoyed. It was a great gig - free lunch everyday and a quiet pool where the guests were polite and the children weren't jumping head first into the shallow end. I couldn’t complain.
At some point in the summer, I found out that my friend was making 50 cents more an hour that I was. Why was he making more money than me? Didn't we both just start as fresh new lifeguards with the same experience? Shouldn’t we have been equal?
I never asked why I was making less, because I was 16 and that wasn’t something I had the nerve to do, and I never asked for more money. I came up with some reason or another as to why this had happened the way it did, in order to make myself feel okay with the situation.
What is 50 cents more an hour really worth anyway? Depending who you ask, and where they are in life financially, it could be very little, but it could mean a lot too. If I had invested it back then, what would it be worth today? More importantly - in what ways did this initial experience set me up for a warped worldview in future job offerings?
Like Abby, I was just grateful to have a job and be paid more than the minimum wage at the time (while working on my lifeguard tan). This isn't some sob story about how "unfair" this was. This is a story about how our first impressions in the working world and the feedback we get from society feed into our valuation of self worth, even if it shouldn’t. That first interaction in the workplace taught me things that I only now realize contributed to distortions that took quite some time to shake off:
My time is worth less than others, in this case, a man with the same skills and experience.
I am too afraid to ask for more than I am worth.
I am willing to make excuses for why these gaps exist.
I am merely grateful for things that should be mine by my own skill and merit.
How many other jobs did I take for wages less than I was worth? How many times did I not counter or question my value because I was just grateful to be in the room? How many times did I fail to take advantage of advertising my strengths and the skills I brought to a position merely because I undervalued them myself?
Fortunately, I feel lucky that I recognize these patterns in myself and in the society that I live and work today. I have learned to step up, ask for what I deserve (and more), and realize the value I bring. But it took awhile to get here, and most of the clarity I found was after predominantly negative experiences that empowered me to fight a little harder for the next time.
It is unfortunate that this is how it goes for women, for people of color, and for marginalized communities. The uphill pattern to success and prosperity in our careers is harder. There is no denying that.
But there is value in talking about it. What if the women in our lives had taught us about these struggles early on? Aired them out to dry like dirty laundry, except instead of dirty laundry, they would be empowering stories of how to not let one person’s experience be repeated? I don’t blame my fore-mothers for failing to do this - we don’t openly talk about money, negotiation, sexism and worth - it is taboo. What I’m saying is - what if we pretended it wasn’t?
To the wolf pack: let’s be more forthcoming about talking about these issues, not only with our friends but with our younger family and mentees in the workplace. Let’s address head on what overt and unconscious sexism looks and feels like so it can be called out for what it is, where it is. Let's lift each other up in the workplace, demand gender balances in our leadership, and work to close the gaps. Let’s learn from each other’s experiences so that together we can howl out and say that, this isn’t how we want this to go anymore.
Read Abby’s full commencement address here.