Nicole Vorrasi Bates
May 5, 2021. Today is Mother’s Equal Pay Day. Being a mom is unequivocally the greatest gift. Yet, as detailed in our recent blog “The Unspoken Economics of Motherhood,” the gender pay gap is greater for mothers, particularly single-mothers and mothers of color.
Today’s blog is dedicated to all working moms, particularly those Rockstar mothers in my village, who I know have struggled with discrimination and career and family balance and have suffered financially as result of deciding to become a mom. I hope working moms find comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that Shattering Glass is fighting for you everyday.
As a little girl, my initial dream job was to be the first female Major League Baseball player. It did not take long to realize that was not going to happen. Even a 5-year-old, who was not allowed to play baseball, and instead had to play softball, could figure that out. Undeterred, I decided I would be the first female President of the United States. That one took a little longer to figure out, but the realization that I needed a new, more realistic dream eventually set in. At the age of nine, I “settled” on becoming a lawyer, and I never looked back.
I had it all mapped out. From high school to college, then law school, and straight to “Big Law.” I fell in love with tax law and went back and got a masters focusing on corporate tax. It wasn’t easy, but I firmly believed all I had to do was work hard, and I would succeed and be rewarded appropriately. So that is exactly what I did.
I was a mergers and acquisitions tax specialist and worked on large corporate deals. To say that M&A tax is a male-dominated field is an understatement. In the 18 years I practiced with that specialty, participating in countless transactions, I only encountered two women as my tax counterpart on the other side of the transaction. This, I could handle. I would just keep working hard, and I would be successful. I loved the work and the clients.
However, given that it was such a male-dominated profession, fairly early on, I concluded that getting pregnant would hurt my chances of making partner, the ultimate goal and perceived brass ring. So, like countless women, I decided to postpone getting pregnant until after making partner for fear of its impact on my career, which meant so very much to me.
Year after year, I received excellent reviews, received a promotion to counsel and served as the tax “partner” on numerous transactions. Yet I still was not awarded the title. Unfortunately, I could not wait any longer to start a family; I had my first child at the age of 36. Ten years and another firm later, I made partner. And then I left Big Law. The only thing I ever wanted to be – besides of course a professional baseball player or the first woman President.
My experience is fairly common. Countless women in my village, which consists of teachers, lawyers, doctors, fundraisers, administrative professionals, workers in the hospitality industry, small business owners, nurses, therapists, and childcare workers, have had similar experiences, and we have lived through them together.
Most of us are older mothers. We all have experienced the snide comments from male colleagues/superiors about children being sick. The questions and looks about the need to work from home. Facing fears that advocating too much for equal pay would most likely result in a loss of flexibility, which our families so desperately needed. As an example, I actually had an employer tell me “but you have flexibility – there is value there” in response to my argument that I deserved additional compensation. Working from home when a child is sick or leaving at the close of business, only to go home and work late into the night gives employers an excuse to pay mothers less? Hmmm. Try that again.
The women in my village serve as a support system for each other. Over the years, my best friend, who also is a lawyer, and I have counseled each other through these challenges as we have had similar work experiences.
Her story is the most egregious example of the negative impacts motherhood can have on a woman’s pay and career (short of outright termination) that I have encountered, and she is happy that I am sharing it with you. She would do so herself if she was able – unfortunately, boilerplate confidentiality/nondisclosure provisions, that she had no choice but to accept or lose her job, prohibit her from doing so.
Out of law school, she also joined a “Big Law” firm, and she was an instant star. She is a true force. It often amazes me how much she juggles, yet she succeeds at everything she does and makes it look so easy. And everyone loves her – clients, colleagues, friends.
Sadly, things changed when she had her first child. Despite a track record of excellent reviews and history of billing 2,100 to 2,500 hours per year and being a consummate team player, when she returned from maternity leave, she was forced to accept a part-time “schedule.” Truth? It was a full-time schedule with 75% pay!
When she challenged being put on the “mommy-track”, she was told it was due to the economy and that others were forced into this arrangement as well. There was no transparency in compensation at her firm, and discussing compensation was implicitly prohibited, so she had no way to know if that was true. They actually had the nerve to tell her that she was “lucky” to have a job!
I will never forget the day she called me crying, recounting the above conversation. How could they do this to her? She just had a baby. It would be very hard for her family if she quit and then would have to prove herself all over again at a new firm with a newborn at home. Lucky to have a full-time job at 75% pay? She made that firm many, many millions prior to her maternity leave (and even more after for that matter).
Fortunately, within six months, it was clear that she was on pace to bill 2,400 hours that year. At that time, she argued the reduced salary was unwarranted, and they returned her to full compensation. Even with the insane amount of hours she was working and the vast sums she was earning for the firm, she had to fight to get her full salary. Not surprisingly, they put her on the “mommy-track” again a few years later, after her second maternity leave, but unfortunately, she was not as busy, so she only received 75% of her salary that year.
When she first went on maternity leave, she was eligible for partnership consideration and everyone thought it was a no-brainer. After all, she was the golden child at her firm. Didn’t happen though.
Each year, they gave her a different reason for not making her a partner, despite the fact that she was working as if she was a partner, given the responsibility of a partner and being billed to clients as if she was a partner. Yes, that’s right. They charged the clients as if she was a partner, but they paid her a fraction of what partners doing the same made!!!
Clearly, they did not want to lose her. She was a cash cow for them. However, they knew she was the primary breadwinner, and that she had a young family and how difficult changing jobs would be for her and her family. And they took full advantage of her circumstances and loyalty.
To that end, they repeatedly told her “it’s not a question of if; it’s just a question of when” she would make partner. There was always an excuse. Firm’s not doing well this year; major client did not bring in enough revenue this year; we have to make “Johnny” a partner because the partner with the huge book of business is insisting, and we have to keep him happy. From the outside, it appeared that they would say anything just to placate her. To keep their cash cow.
Prior to her first maternity leave, she consistently received raises and bonuses. Her last raise came the year before her first maternity leave. Twelve years later, first having been elevated to counsel and then subsequently partner, she still had not received a raise! Two promotions – including making partner – and no raise!!! In twelve years.
I watched her self-esteem plummet, and I was not sure what to do. I know she had a young family; she absolutely loved her work and the clients, and she was loyal to a fault, but it was taking a toll on her emotional and physical health. With the firm’s closed compensation system, it appeared either that she was trying to convince herself that the same was likely happening across the board or that it was better for her family for her to put up with it to accept the significant compensation she actually received even if it was a small fraction of what her male peers were paid.
However, she never stopped advocating each year for a promotion and a raise, which I know because we practiced the easy arguments! I mean what could the counter-arguments possibly be – given her incredible reviews and two promotions – for not giving her a raise in 12 years?! It was utterly ridiculous.
Towards the end, management made clear that they were getting frustrated with the requests for additional compensation, even calling her a “snowflake” or referring to her reasoned arguments as a “scorched earth” approach. Really? Snowflake? Scorched Earth? For asking for a raise after 12 years? After making them millions and millions of dollars during that period?! Honestly, as I listened to her retell the events, visions of an abusive relationship would pop into my head.
I vividly remember the day when she told me that they had given her no choice – she had to leave. It was killing her. She said “I feel terrible about myself and know that I have to set a better example for my daughter. I have to stand-up for myself, even if that means giving up what I love and what I worked so very hard for.”
We were both bawling. I hurt so much for her, for everything she endured, and knowing how scary it was for her, as the primary breadwinner in her family, to make this decision. I love her, and it was so hard to watch her go through this, particularly having had similar experiences. At the same time, I was beyond proud of her for leaving.
However, she should not have had to leave. It should not have come to this. She deserved so much better. All women do.
As a result of all of the things that I have experienced over the course of my career and witnessed the women in my village and my colleagues experience, when I saw that the pandemic was battering women, I had to do something. Woman cannot afford to go backwards. The time has come for equality. Enough!
I founded Shattering Glass to fight for gender equality so that our children, grandchildren and their children do not have to deal with this pain.
But to succeed in the fight, I need your help. It is the strength of our collective voice that will lead to the necessary changes. Please join the #ShatteringGlassMovement and the fight for gender equality.