Ask for More. Pretty Please?

Levo League‘s video for the #Ask4More campaign

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a perfect opportunity to reflect on how the choices we make as individuals shape the world in which we want to live. It’s a great day to step back and ask ourselves: Do our choices alleviate injustice or perpetuate it?

I cannot remember the last time I went a week without hearing a woman say one of the following things:

“I don’t have to earn a living wage, because my husband supports me.”


“Since I don’t have to pay the mortgage, I can be more competitive by charging less.”


“Women just have to work twice as hard as men.”

Many of these women are entrepreneurs who are casting around for any possible competitive advantage. I cannot fault these women as individuals for doing whatever they need to do to get by.

But when I look at these statements, suddenly the gender pay gap isn’t so hard to explain. It’s also not hard to see why women entrepreneurs seek and receive less financing than our male counterparts. To some extent, we’re doing it to ourselves.

Last year, Seattle’s Geekwire ran a surprisingly uninformed article based on a non-study that concluded our city ranks 2nd in the nation for women entrepreneurs. Only one of the five superficial metrics was weighted for gender – the percentage of businesses owned by women. They offered no data on the value of those companies or the income they generated for owners. The rest of the metrics bore no correlation to the ability of women entrepreneurs to succeed. Yet I hear this ranking repeated over and over in the startup community, as if it exonerates us from the facts.

Almost every “women-owned business” I’ve encountered in my life is a one-woman show. Seattle’s business landscape is no different. They’re not even mom-and-pop shops — they’re “mom shops.” More often than not, they are started by women who got fed up with discrimination in their workplace, or were refused re-entry to their careers after having kids, or found themselves flailing financially after a divorce. Their status as business owners is a symbol of struggle, not success.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau back this up:
* Women-owned businesses, big and small, account for just 3.9 percent of all business receipts nation-wide.
* The overwhelming majority of women-owned businesses (88.3 percent) have zero paid employees.
* Those 88.3 percent account for just 15.3 percent of the total dollars earned by women-owned businesses.

In other words, the 6.9 million individual women business owners in the U.S. make up just one half of one percent of the economy. Does that sound rosy to you?

Seattle has the largest gender pay gap among major U.S. cities, and that is only among those who are employed full-time. Add to that the assumptions I hear knocked around in the non-profit world that they can “save money” by hiring married women on a less-than-full-time basis or simply relying on educated wives of powerful men to serve as volunteers. The idea is that women can be compensated less for their work, whether entrepreneurs or not, because it is men’s job to provide for their financial security.

Every time a woman accepts a lower wage, longer hours, or a lesser rate, she does more than undercut her own value. She accepts, on behalf of women everywhere, the idea that we must marry men who support us financially. Only then, once we’ve squared away our economic needs, can we take risks with our careers. It is not hard to see how this perpetuates the perception that women’s work is worth less than men’s – and, on the flip-side, puts pressure on men to be the sole providers.

My challenge to every woman, married or not, is to think twice the next time you offer to work harder for less money. Think about whether that alleviates gender inequality or perpetuates it. Think about all the hardworking people, both women and men, who don’t have the luxury of working for free. Think of yourself as worth every cent you would be worth if you had to be (or already are) the breadwinner in your home. Our value comes from competence, not price-competitiveness.

“In the end,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Married women (and men), it’s your turn to speak up.


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