Georgene Huang is on a mission to make workplaces across sectors and across the country better for women. In 2015, that mission drove her to co-found Fairygodboss, a marketplace where professional women looking for jobs, career advice and the inside scoop on companies can meet employers who believe in gender equality and read stories from other women in their industries. Huang, who is now the FGB CEO, previously ran the enterprise business at Dow Jones, was a Managing Director at Bloomberg Ventures and is a regular contributor to Forbes.
Some of FGB’s major features are even more salient today, as advocates nationwide are raising awareness about the wage gap for Equal Pay Day and women around the world are holding men in power accountable with the #MeToo movement. FGB’s salary database, as well as its testimonials portal, give women an unprecedented opportunity to both tell stories of harassment and discrimination and confront inequality head-on. Women in different sectors can use FGB’s tools to prepare for salary negotiations, navigate a job search by elevating the employers who treat women with respect and find counterparts to support them if and when they confront sexism at the office.
In a special Equal Pay Day edition of the Ms. Q&A, we talked to Huang about the wage gap, building woman-friendly workplaces and how FGB has changed the landscape for women ready to take charge of their professional and financial lives. (She also wants you to ask for a raise. Right now.)
Tell me about the FGB inception story. What sparked the creation of this kind of platform for working women, what has sustained it and what brought you to it?
Fairygodboss a few years ago, when I was suddenly fired from my executive role at a major company as part of an unexpected management shakeup. At the time, I was two months pregnant and hadn’t yet told anyone. So I was in this position of Iooking for a job and going on interviews — and feeling quite pressured to hide my pregnancy.
While interviewing, I wanted to ask certain questions — like, is work-life balance enabled here? Are women paid and promoted fairly? What’s the maternity leave policy? — but feared being judged as less than fully committed to my career if I asked. So, I turned to the internet for answers, and was surprised by the lack of information I found, given how crucial this information is to women’s careers. It was then that I decided to start an online database where women could anonymously crowdsource this information, and that’s how Fairygodboss was born. Today, we’re connecting a million women each month with
maternity leave intel,
career advice, and
job postings at partner companies that believe in gender equality.
Our community is really what sustains us. Fairygodboss users are driven and ambitious about developing their own careers, but are also determined to help other women advance as well. It’s also been really gratifying to see that so companies echo this same desire and want to partner with us.
In the long-term, what changes do you hope will come of this work?
I’m obsessed with improving the workplace for women and believe the way to do that is through transparency. I really do believe in the saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant. By pushing conversations about the way companies treat women to the forefront, we’re equipping women with the intel they need to make informed decisions about their careers, and that can lead to so many different forms of lasting change.
For starters, according to some estimates, approximately 43% of working moms wind up pausing their careers or leaving them altogether when they have children, and a big reason behind that is a lack of company policies that support families. By helping connect women with the companies that do support families — through paid leave, flexibility, and a refusal to “mommy track,” as a few examples — we’re reducing the chance that they’ll leave the workforce. And that has major financial implications, for the country’s GDP, companies’ bottom lines, and the economic power of mothers and women overall.
Through transparency, we’re also helping to hold companies that don’t treat women well accountable — and as we’ve seen through #MeToo, drastic change for women is possible when truth telling is enabled and new standards for behavior and treatment are set.
The wage gap is often “blamed” on different factors. Some people insist women take lower-paying work and would rather have flexibility than six-figure salaries. Some folks see pure misogyny in the persistence of the gap and our slow growth, nationwide, to close it. Others think women need to step up and self-advocate more at work. The only thing we know for sure is that women are impacted by it across sectors and across planes of power. What do you think shapes the gap?
The pay gap is truly such a nuanced issue, with no shortage of compounding factors. While some of it is undoubtedly caused by bias and discrimination, other parts of it have been found to be based on women’s choices to enter less financially rewarding careers or disproportionally take on certain kinds of jobs that tend to be paid less well than men. Another factor some people cite is that women negotiate less than men and ask for less. There’s a statistic, which comes from research at Hewlett Packard, that I think sums up one reason for this comparative lack of negotiation particularly well — men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.
I think it’s a mix of what you described—with one exception. To those who say women would rather be paid less in exchange for greater flexibility, I think that what we have in the U.S. right now is a flawed system that forces many women to choose between the two due to a lack of support and policies, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. In terms of women willingly taking on lower-paying work, research also shows that once society assigns a gender to a job — so, nursing being a “women’s job,” as an example — that job becomes viewed as being inherently worth less money. So you have to look at the bias that shapes what’s seen as valuable, and less valuable, work.
Feminists have long seen transparency around pay as a solution to the wage gap. The logic behind those legislative pushes has always been that if women can talk to one another and to their other colleagues about pay, they’re more likely to observe inequities and be able to confidently approach their managers about them. How has the salary database at FGB impacted women’s economic lives?
Similarly [to the negotiation gap], I think many women only feel confident enough to ask for more money when they believe they are 100% deserving of it — and not knowing how their earnings compare to those of their colleagues and peers can make reaching that 100% particularly tough.
The whole idea behind our salary database was to help women understand from other women what they earn so that they are better equipped to negotiate. Our database allows women to look up salary and bonus ranges according to employer, department and job titles, and tens of thousands of women have entered their pay information into it. Transparency on the part of companies — like Salesforce, which spent $6 million to conduct an internal pay audit and remedy its wage gap — is important, but so is transparency between women. Of course, money continues to have a lingering taboo status, and there are myriad reasons why a woman may not feel comfortable asking her colleagues what they make directly. As an anonymous “whisper network,” our salary database is giving women access to that information in a more protected way.
How are FGB users pushing back on the wage gap, and what solutions and root causes of these disparities have they observed in their testimonials?
Our users are pushing back against the wage gap not only by leaving a review on our site (listing your salary is a part of that), but they’ve also been utilizing our discussion boards to get advice on things like negotiation tactics and what to do when you find out a male peer is making more than you. Recently, a user turned to our community for advice when she found out her male colleague was making the same amount of money as her — despite her having almost 20 years more industry experience than him — and people responded with similar testimonials and advice.
We also have testimonials of women asking for raises and being countered with stipulations — that the timing “isn’t right,” that they’d need to take on additional responsibilities, etc. — whereas when male colleagues ask for a raise, they’re not met with near as much resistance. That’s especially disheartening to hear, considering that too few women ask for raises to begin with. The most commonly voiced solution usually involves a conversation with your boss, and if they aren’t receptive, your boss’s manager or HR. A lot of this comes down to individual managers, and the level of support they give women. Larger, structural solutions include unconscious bias training, ensuring that management is in and of itself diverse, and even incentivizing managers to sponsor and advance women.
Has reading these women’s stories shined a new light for you on economic justice issues for women, or shifted your perspective?
One thing that I have a new perspective on after reading thousands of womens’ job reviews is that promotion practices are inextricably related to equal pay issues for women. If you’re not promoted, you aren’t as likely to get a raise. So if women aren’t being promoted fairly or at the same rate as men, we will not, by definition, be able to close the gender pay gap.
What advice or call to action would you like to issue to FGB users, feminists and all women workers today to mark Equal Pay Day?
Ask for a raise — and don’t put off doing so. It’s true that companies must also be fairer in the way they compensate and reward employees. However, for women individually, we also can’t just hope for the best or that change will happen fast enough and in a systematic way. Unfortunately, one of the most common pieces of advice women give each other in our community is that we must advocate for ourselves more aggressively. Use resources, like Fairygodboss’ company reviews, discussion boards, and salary database, to determine whether you’re being paid appropriately. And if you determine that you are — still ask. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get what you ask for at the moment… but at least you’ve put your manager and employer on high alert that you are aware that you’re paying close attention to your career mobility and value.