… That time I was the only woman in the room.

This is from a reading done for the Freya Project on “That time I was the only woman in the room.” Founded in the wake of the 2016 election, The Freya Project strives to create an environment where women can support each other as empowered citizens of the United States. On November 29th, five amazing women will gather in New York City, NY to read about a time they were the only woman in the room. Proceeds from the event support Equal Pay Today. Thank you, Freya Project!

That time I was the only woman in the room, I was in my late 20s. I was the newest and youngest person on the policy team, and I had been promoted to team leadership. I was spirited (and naive) and found myself surprised that none of my more senior colleagues fought for the role. So, I pitched for the position. Our director was excited by my ambition — recognizing it in himself — and so, I got the job.

I would gain many invaluable experiences in the role, but I underestimated how much of that education would come from simply being in the room. It’s an experience I have carried with me — for better or for worse — into future jobs, one that I use in my mentorship of other women, and one that informs my current efforts to achieve “Equal Pay Today” for all women.

First Lesson

There’s more than one way to oppress a woman in the workplace. This isn’t a bad man story. Everyone and no one is to blame. But it is a story about the professional death by a thousand cuts experienced by women in the workplace, even the good workplaces.

The American workforce culture was created by and for men, White men to be exact. Our workplace was no different. It was fine for women to be there — to lead even, as long as we operated as men. If you had no children or familial responsibilities or could operate as if you didn’t, that was best.

In the alternative — and this was the kicker: You could bring your child to work in an emergency. After all, we were “family friendly.” As our big boss said, “having a baby is no barrier to work in this office.” I kind of liked that. (I still do.) But in reality, I noticed quickly that 1) women were the only people bringing their children to work, 2) the only people being expected to babysit those children were other women — often younger, unmarried, without children women, and 3) the men seemed not to notice.

My boss neither acknowledged the children’s presence nor the drama of an office where exhausted and panic moms were crushed under the weight of a twisted work-life balance that had them running a triangle between their desk, their boss, and their colleague both to soothe their child and offer embarrassed apologies for the inconvenience. And for their trouble? A “you’re welcome” attitude for the so-called flexibility, silent judgement for not being better able to time manage, and unwarranted guilt.

And what of the younger women who did the babysitting? Well, everyone just assumed we were having fun … at the office … after hours…not working … not advancing our career…indeed, undervaluing ourselves…all to help out a working sister and her crying baby. And of course, in everyone’s defense, we pretended to like it.

Second Lesson

Workplace culture aside, women’s equality in the workplace is only as good as men’s equality in the home. At no time did anyone ask “where are the fathers of these children?” Well, I did. And, shamefully, it was aloud in one the rooms when I was the only woman. But, I was alone in that. And certainly no one ever asked my boss or the other men, “who keeps your children when we have to work late or have an emergency?” After all, the answer to both was obvious: Moms — in the office or outside of it — were expected to care for their children.

We simply accepted this as a norm, a male dominated view of both work and life, all of it completely unbalanced.

Third Lesson

Never wait for someone to recognize your talents. They won’t. Worse, the men I worked with didn’t even think they should.

One of the women on my team — a good friend, who was there before me — came to me in tears. She had been hearing everyone talk about raises and she realized — for the first time — that we were all making more than her. She could have found that on legistorm, but— to her discredit — she hadn’t looked. Now, she found herself barely able to make ends meet, after providing exceptional service in the office for years. She came to me as a friend, but I also reminded her (and myself) that I was her team lead. I didn’t set salary, but I had some room to advocate. So I gathered my facts and approached our boss on her behalf. He applauded me for my initiative, but made it clear that our colleague hadn’t received a meaningful raise because she hadn’t asked for one. He was wondering why she didn’t and felt it showed lacking in some way, aside from her excellent work and reviews, but that wasn’t his problem. Honestly, I was stunned. I countered that it was our responsibility to make sure salaries are fair. He corrected me, noting that it is his responsibility to ensure the office didn’t go over budget and salaries are one way to do it. Moreover, there is value in valuing yourself.

In hindsight, I think we were both right. There is value in fighting for yourself, but a boss, a mentor — as he held himself out to be — should keep watch of inequity. We had just passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to much fan fare. He knew how this worked.

Besides, I later learned that not everyone who got a raise had to ask for it. Some were simply told they would get an increase in reward for their service, to ensure they were satisfied. I was not one of those people. None of the women were. We had to ask. We had to make the case.

There was inequity in that. The wind was in our face, instead of at our backs, which made all the difference. What is more, literally no one — at least not those men in the room — cared. They didn’t have to.

Now I lead a coalition of people who care, and we want to ensure the nation’s employers have to care as well.

Equal Pay Today is a national coalition of women’s and workers rights organizations working at the local, state, and federal level to close the gender wage gap for all women and engage new and diverse constituencies in the fight for equal pay. Through state projects in California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington State and the work of our roundtable member organizations across the country, including in New York, Washington, DC, Mississippi and soon South Carolina, we are working to address the major legal, legislative, policy and cultural issues that allow the wage gap to persist and undermine women’s economic security.

These issues include hiring and promotion discrimination, pay secrecy and retaliation for discussing pay, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination, occupational segregation, and wage theft and lack of a livable minimum wage, including for tipped workers, who are disproportionately women.

In 2017, women working full time year-round were typically paid 80 cents for every dollar paid men. And when compared to White, non-Hispanic men, Asian women were typically paid 85 cents, White women were paid 77 cents, Black women were paid 61 cents, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women were paid 59 cents, American Indian and Alaska Native women were paid 57 cents and Latinas were paid 53 cents for every dollar paid. These statistics are based on median wages for full time workers in all fields, but no matter the industry, job, or location, a wage gap persists between women and men and the situation is worse for women at the intersection of sex and almost anything else, including race, ethnicity, disability, and gender identity.

But this is yearly, wealth is amassed over the years. When the Institute for Women’s Policy Research looked at the gender wage gap over a 15 year period, they found that women earned nearly half of what men earned. Worse, this number isn’t only comprised of women who simply decided to stay home for the bulk of those years to care for children or a loved one, it is comprised of women who worked all of or nearly every day of those 15 years with or without children. It is comprised of women who want to work consistently but who can’t because they have childcare responsibilities, no leave and can’t afford a baby sister, just as it is comprised of women who’ve had to serve as unpaid babysisters. It is comprised of women who were overlooked for promotion because they don’t meet some arbitrary standard of leadership where all of the desirable traits are masculine. It is comprised of women who select jobs based on flexibility, not upward mobility, when the truth is all jobs can and should have flexibility.

Everything I learned in the microcosm of my little office in my 20s is still true today. The wind is still in our face, but there is something we can do about it.

We can start by:

1) Passing state and federal legislative agendas that promote women’s and family economic security, including strengthening equal pay, equal employment, and anti-harassment protections, providing paid leave, raising the minimum wage and protecting the right to organize;

2) Pushing employers to take steps to close the gender wage gap, including conducting pay and promotion audits, increasing pay transparency, limiting the use of prior salary, ensuring safe workplaces, including eliminating harassment of any kind, and investing in meaningful diversity and inclusion efforts; and

3) Ensuring that each of us is advocating for ourselves at work.

Talk about pay. Only if permissible at work, but also in your family and friendship circle because you will learn from the exercise and because it will normalize and take the stigma out of talking about money and asking for a raise. At the risk of sounding like Mika Brzezinski, know your value, track your contributions, and ask for a raise, every year. This isn’t advice that all women, especially hourly workers or vulnerable workers, can use, but if you can use it, don’t make excuses. Don’t wait to be recognized. Demand more at work and also at home. My team member? She asked for her raise and she got one. Of course… it never made up for the years of being underpaid.

Finally, we need you to support organizations like the ones on our Roundtable, like Equal Pay Today, who are already doing this work on behalf of all women at the local, state and federal level.

We need your investment to file impact litigation and ensure that enforcement of equal pay and wage laws, to promote a progressive policy agenda not only in states like New York but also in states like Mississippi, to get that agenda made law, to ensure employers — especially small businesses — have the information needed to comply with the law, to ensure equal pay days aren’t just lipservice days but are days when employers are asked to account for what they are doing to close the wage gap for women and women of color.

If you stand with us, we can close the gap. If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that it is possible to challenge and change the cultural norms that oppress us. We are not the only women in the proverbial room of this nation. We are powerful beyond measure. Let us be the mothers of a new American workplace culture, where women are not only tolerated but we are centered, and (hell yes) we are paid.

Equal Pay Today and I look forward to making this possible.