Dr. Patti Fletcher of Workhuman: 5 Things We Need To Do To Close The Gender Wage Gap
We need to understand the role women play when it comes to purse strings. Women are responsible for 90% of consumer buy decisions. Women are responsible for controlling or managing 51% of the wealth in the US. Women reinvest about 90% of the money they make back into the communities in which they live and work. Again, we are leaving money on the table. As a society, we have to ask ourselves why.
As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Patti Fletcher.
Dr. Patti Fletcher, an award-winning marketer and enterprise technology influencer, is the vice president of brand marketing at Workhuman. As a highly sought after leadership futurist focused on workplace equity, technology, and disruption in the talent economy, Dr. Fletcher writes and has contributed to Entrepreneur.com, The Guardian, Forbes, and other global media outlets. She is also the author of the best-selling book, “Disrupters: Success Strategies From Women Who Break the Mold.”
Additionally, Patti is a founding member of Board++, an advisory board member at SNHU, executive-in-residence for Babson College’s WIN Lab, and a former board member of Astia and the Simmons College entrepreneurship program.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?
I was in a thriving career in enterprise tech. I always got to work on the “next big thing” type of initiatives that enabled me to work around the globe with cross-functional people from all levels of the business and from all types of customers. Catalyzed by the events and aftermath of 9/11, I began to ask myself the big questions: Why am I here? What does all this mean? Is working this hard really worth it? This kind of introspection forced me to look at my own life and how I was spending it. It also ignited a terrible thought: What if I work so very hard at making a big career, only to have it all taken away? This brought back memories of my maternal grandmother, who was orphaned in the Armenian genocide when she was an infant. Her life was extremely difficult and never got easier. Her family had everything they worked so hard for taken away, including their family bond and family members. I knew very little about my grandmother’s life, despite spending so much time with her (she watched me when I was not in school, as my mother was a working mom at a time when no other moms I knew worked), and I wanted to know more. I was not able to find any real information about my grandmother and her family — my MBA and business research skills were simply not enough. I decided to go back for my PhD to learn how to research like a scholar. Of course, I did this at the most inconvenient time, with two small kids at home and a high-pressure job where it felt like I travelled on planes for a living.
After nearly two years of classes and 18 months pretty far down the path of creating a dissertation proposal focused on new tech innovation in virtual environments using transformational leadership, I was forced to take a feminist leadership class. I was raised to believe that feminism was an “or” belief, as in “women or men.” How wrong I was. On the first day, I learned about Dr. Carol Gilligan. I began to question the status quo beliefs in my head. Mostly, it was the first time that I took a look around and realized that I was always ‘the only’ or ‘the first’ woman in most rooms I had been in throughout my life.
This was nearly 18 years ago. Unconscious bias was talked about, but it was well before women at work as a topic went mainstream. I decided to scrap all the work on my original dissertation proposal and instead do a phenomenology study of women who held board of director positions in publicly held life sciences and technology businesses. At the time, these were the most technology-intensive industries. I was so inspired by the disruptive and very human leadership of these women.
At the time (early-mid 2000s), it was all about business process reengineering and humans that had dollar signs above their heads that could be downsized on an Excel spreadsheet. These women were bringing disruptive innovations to the world that were only the result of their humanity in the workplace. And yet, when I looked around, there were so few women in influence or in decision-making ranks and even fewer in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The more research I did, the more dire the situation appeared. You know how it is. Once you’re woke to something it’s hard to not do something about it. I love technology and I love the impact it can have on our lives. I was further convinced of my role in making the workplace more equitable because at the same time I was learning about these incredible women who have created lives that have shaped the world. I was also learning about my grandmother, her sisters, and her mother. I come from a long line of women who had no say in their own lives, simply because of when they were born, where they were born, and the gender, religion, and race into which they were born. I knew that I was fortunate enough to be born at a time and in a country where I could create a platform for members of underrepresented populations to be able to come together and have their voices heard.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
There are so many that it’s hard to choose, but one sticks out in my mind and it’s one that’s actually in the first chapter of my book, Disrupters. I met this very polished woman on a flight from SFO to Boston. She was a product VP at a large technology infrastructure business I had worked with previously. This VP was extremely smart, extremely intelligent, and extremely capable. Our conversation started when she asked me what I was working on (I was editing my book at the time — this story was a late addition!). After telling her about my work and the book, she told me that in her career she had never faced any challenges because of her gender. I was so fascinated and skeptical, and of course I had to learn more. You can probably guess what happened next. I asked her where she was travelling from and she said she just finished an all-hands offsite meeting with 3,000 of her closest colleagues. A big project was shared that she had founded. The project took off, and her boss had transferred ownership of the project to two young white men in the organization. When the project was presented on the big stage at that offsite, her name was never mentioned. As she relayed the story, her face and body language were visibly transforming. She became a woke woman who saw her career for what it was, versus what she was conditioned to believe and what she was conditioned to tell the world: “My career is perfect. I’m perfect. Everyone is perfect.” I spent the rest of the flight talking her through the situation and then coaching her on what to do next.
I went from never talking to people while travelling (I was a multi-decade road warrior up until the Covid -19 pandemic) to talking to my seat mates. Everyone has a story and each one is so very interesting — even when they are stories from people whose values are very different from my own.
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Shortly after completing my PhD, I facilitated a panel at a very large global tech conference on getting more female developers into the enterprise technology space. Prior to the panel, my dissertation had been very well received and all the keynotes and breakout sessions I did on my research were met with rave reviews. I thought everyone was on the same page as me when it came to increasing gender equity in tech. Oh boy, did that panel change my mind. I noticed right away, as did my panelists (men and women), that people were leaving the room at a pretty steady rate. By halfway through the panel, half of the seats were empty. By the end, it felt like it was only the conference room staff who filled the seats out of pity. Over the hours and days that followed, I was ambushed with hate blogs and nasty emails. Not one executive who sponsored the event (and approved of the questions and talking points) stood up for us. The panelists distanced themselves from me. It was awful. After licking my wounds, I reached out to some of my harshest critics, both men and women. Keep in mind there were probably only about two or three women in a room full of 300 people who attended that session. What I found out from the women is that they did not want to be known as “that kind of woman,” because these were men they worked with or looked up to and did not want to tarnish their own reputations. From some of the nastiest men I found out that they felt blamed and shamed. That was a really important lesson for me: that blaming-and-shaming feels like another form of prejudice and that it was my job to meet people where they are instead of being perceived as judging them for who they are and for their beliefs. As painful as it was during the time, it was one of the best lessons I learned, and I am so grateful that I did.
Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earned about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?
- Systemic bias in our workplace. There are over 150 unconscious biases at play in our brains at any given time. And those unconscious biases determine 99.97% of how our brains process the information around us. We are conditioned to believe that women should be paid less for a number of reasons. One reason being that we hire and pay women based on experience, which they have to constantly prove they have, and we hire and reward men for their potential, which goes unchecked. We are also conditioned to devalue the worth of women. It’s so bad that we women even pay ourselves less as startup founders than male startup founders pay themselves.
- Female salaries start off lower than male salaries and we are conditioned to do nothing about it. Although women are told that they need to be more like men when it comes to negotiating, when they do, they are punished for it and they know it. My friend Pat Milligan, who founded and led the When Women Thrive program at Mercer, shared with me a story before she retired that when she would present to female MBA students at Stanford and Harvard, she would ask: “When going for a new job or promotion, how many of you have asked that hiring manager or HR what they were going to do to ensure you were paid on par with your male colleagues?” Not one of those women would raise their hands.
- We need more visibility and accountability. It’s really hard for companies to get past “stuck” mindsets that take things literally, like “comparable jobs” (yes, the truth is what one marketing director does is very different than what another marketing director does). If you do find that you have a pay gap issue, correcting that is extremely expensive depending on the size of the gap and how many people are involved. I am a shareholder in many companies. I get it. People are expensive. As business leaders, we have an obligation to pay people their worth. Worth is about contribution, not about gender or race. It is becoming harder and harder for companies to hide behind the grey of unexposed data. People are now demanding this kind of insight from their employers and the companies in which they invest and from which they buy their products and services.
Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?
I have spent over 15 years writing, researching, speaking to the public — both to policy and business decision makers — and, as a business leader, creating change. This is an incredibly important topic and it is an honor to help people in power understand how to do pay gap and pay equity analysis in the workplace and then what to do about it when it comes to corrective measures. Additionally, there’s a significant amount of change management that has to happen. In addition to the technology, which I have had a hand in designing and bringing to market, I remain committed to enabling leaders to manage the change needed in detecting, preventing, and, eventually, eradicating the unconscious bias that stands in the way of pay equity. I help companies understand that no matter what changes they put in place, unless they have reinforcement mechanisms that are tied to people’s salary in performance reviews, then nothing is actually going to change. So, working with companies to help them identify the right goals and enable their middle managers — the people most responsible for the majority of a workplace — has been a critical gamechanger in closing the gender wage gap.
I’m really fortunate to now be at a company, Workhuman, where our platform is all about fostering recognition, belonging, humanity, and human connection in the workplace. It’s so rewarding to be able to raise the consciousness of leaders and inform them that there is a problem when it comes to pay equity — that we have to get past the blame and shame, and that together as leaders we can change not only the narrative but the practice of pay in business. One of Workhuman’s solutions to this is crowdsourced pay. Rather than top-down spot bonuses that are infused with bias and not necessarily indicative of team contribution, crowdsourced pay is awarded peer-to-peer in recognition of contribution, relationships, and how they impact their own work getting done. Crowdsourced pay is effective because it empowers everyone in the organization to award part of that variable pay investment to multiple employees many times a year. Fixing pay disparities can start with leveraging HR technology, making it easy for employees to integrate peer feedback, employee recognition and variable pay. It’s amazing what happens to pay equity when you introduce a totally new mindset and concept around who gets to decide who gets paid and how.
Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.
- Here’s the deal: We already have what it takes to solve this problem. As a society, we have to answer this question: Do we believe women should be paid equally to men? Simple question and simple answer. We have the diagnostic technologies, and we have the enterprise solutions. We have the understanding and knowledge of the role of unconscious bias in our workplace practices. To truly solve this problem, we just have to pay women equally to men. We have to use the data that we have and ask ourselves what new data we can capture that will help us make better pay decisions. It absolutely drives me crazy when I hear HR business leader say that they don’t know where to start when it comes to pay equity. There is a LOT of guidance and best practices out there.
- We also need to take a serious look at the economic impact of not paying women on par with men. According to the World Economic Forum, it’s going to be well over a century before women are paid on par with their male colleagues. According to McKinsey, if just the women in the workforce today were paid on par with our male colleagues, it would add over 12 trillion dollars to the global economy. Crazy, right? That’s like three country GDPs put together. We are leaving so much money on the table.
- We need to understand the role women play when it comes to purse strings. Women are responsible for 90% of consumer buy decisions. Women are responsible for controlling or managing 51% of the wealth in the US. Women reinvest about 90% of the money they make back into the communities in which they live and work. Again, we are leaving money on the table. As a society, we have to ask ourselves why.
- We have to get away from blame and shame. It’s never worked. I remember being at a conference at the Milken Institute some years ago. The conference was about gender equity. It was at a time that was before the #MeToo movement. It was so interesting because they were able to diffuse the blame and shame by focusing in on the content instead of on the people. As a society, we need to get our egos out of the way and focus on the facts.
- Finally, it would be so helpful relating to all these points if, as a society, we could take a collective view of the system in which we live and work. Remember a few years ago when there was that false alarm in Hawaii? Someone in the military had pressed the wrong button and people thought missiles were coming at them? If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you know how scary that would be. Memories of Pearl Harbor coming back to those who were living during that time and the threat of another Pearl Harbor to those who have only learned about it from their ancestors or history books. Of course, there were no missiles, and it was simply a human mistake. The first thing the military had to do was ask themselves the question: What made this possible with so much technology in place? Why was there no off button? It’s the same for pay equity. Women are 51% of the workforce in most developed countries. Women are increasingly primary earners in a growing number of households. Women make up more than half of bachelor’s degrees, more than half of MBAs and the vast majority of PhDs. We have credentials and we are contributing in meaningful and material ways. How is it possible that there is still a pay equity problem given the context of the world in which we live?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m already doing it! I’m on a mission to change the way the world views women who lead disruption and how these women view themselves. I want to provide a platform where women from all walks of life — who have made changes and disruptions within themselves and within the world around them — can share their stories in a way where we don’t need to call out that they are female entrepreneurs, but instead they’re just entrepreneurs. They’re not female executives or female board members, they’re simply executives or board members. I work very actively on growing my own personal brand for this purpose — so I can share these stories, elevate these storytellers, these disrupters, these people who are so invested in making our world a better place. To me, it is critical. What I absolutely love is that now there are more and more men who are allies, who are joining that platform and inviting their friends to do the same. That has been a huge tipping point.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a few quotes but one of them that always comes to mind is “This too shall pass.” When you are disrupting a system that the power majority is thriving in, or at least comfortable in, you are going to face some pretty bad moments in your life. I have to remind myself that no matter how hard it gets, no matter how vulnerable I feel, no matter how uncertain I am about the direction that things are going, this moment will pass. I also remind myself of that during extremely good times as well. The reason I do that is so that I can take that good, not take it for granted and truly experience it. For me, that’s really important, because I’m someone who never really stops to celebrate. Instead, I’m already looking for the next thing that I need to do. That does not make me fun to be around and it’s really important to celebrate success when you’re disrupting, because no one gets to that finish line alone. The people around you who have helped you along the way deserve to be able to celebrate the small and the big.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Do I have to pick just one? This is so obvious but I’m going to say it: Michelle Obama. I cannot get enough of her. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the United State of Women event that the White House sponsored during the Obama administration. When President Obama got up to do his speech, the first thing he said was, “I know you’re really here to see Michelle.” The crowd erupted. He was not wrong! She is so wise, so empathetic, and so real. She gets hurt by things and she keeps going. She was so open and so vulnerable and yet you cannot mistake her strength. I want to just hang out with her and do yoga and chat about anything, from TV shows to the deep and meaningful topics that can help change the world. She has changed my thought process and she has changed what I believe I can do with my life. She is our generation’s Eleanor Roosevelt when it comes to the power we women can have as individuals and, more importantly, when we come together.