Describing Claire Wasserman’s upbringing as “cinematic” might very well be an understatement: Born on the Upper West Side to a mother steeped the world of New York Opera and a father who worked in publishing (but was also an honorary Black Panther, “even though he’s super white and Jewish,” Claire told us, laughing), she grew up in a whimsical, bohemian apartment, the walls of which were lined with 15,000 books; there wasn’t a piece of wall that was uncovered. At age 9, she landed a role in a Paul Simon Broadway musical; at 11, she won an essay contest that earned her a meeting with the Supreme Court Justices. There were French lessons, art classes at the Met, and endless dinner parties with the city’s intellectual elite at her childhood home (“I was essentially an adult by the age of 2,” Claire jokes).
But of course, as the trope of idyllic childhoods tend to go, upon closer examination, it was anything but: Claire’s abundant sense of achievement at an early age began to consume her. “I started to build my identity based on what I’ve accomplished. And I am what I’ve done, but I’m also more than that.” As an adolescent, the need to succeed eventually became crushing; thankfully, failure arrived right in time: At the tail end of high school, Claire became the first, in a family full of Yale alum, not to get in. “It put a chip on my shoulder that encouraged me to forge my own path and not have a traditional career. It made me think ‘Fuck you, I’m going to do it my way way.’”
And so, after completing her undergrad at Boston University, Claire set out on a career in creative marketing, most recently serving as Director of Marketing and one of the first hires for uber cool creative-freelance network Working Not Working (or “Linkedin on creative steroids,” as she puts it). But while she adored her time there, her passion for social justice that had been instilled in Claire since childhood (remember her Black Panther dad?) was clamoring for more. Couple that with the inciting incident: Claire had never really considered herself a feminist (“which is fucking ridiculous, because by definition it means you believe yourself to be equal with men. But I just didn’t align myself with that strain of thought”), but while in attendance for a big advertising-industry networking event, the rampant misogyny for which the advertising world is now famous (hi, Don Draper) couldn’t be ignored; she was ogled and asked repeatedly whose wife she was. “It was just like, ‘Why am I at this frat party?’” Shortly after, when a peer mentioned her irritation at the lack of conversation around how much money women make, something clicked. “The minute I heard that, I just thought: town hall.”
That was this past summer; after posting the announcement for the first town hall on the topic of wages and salary, 100 women signed up within 10 minutes. Then 200. Then 300. “This energy just came out in that room, in this loft apartment where everyone was sitting on each other’s laps, basically. Just talking about every challenge they’ve ever had with money, but it was so positive. One woman would say something she struggled with, and then another woman would say, ’Me too, but here’s what I did.’ I left that night just reeling. I knew that I had something there. I’d never experienced energy like that before.”
So goes the origin tale of Ladies Get Paid. Focused around these town-hall style meetings, the group has grown to more than 2,000 members in a matter of months and caught the attention of New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Claire talked with us some more about the mission of Ladies Get Paid, tackling taboos, resisting the urge to punch your meditation guru in the face, and what’s in store for the future.
So let’s rewind for a minute to your previous job. You loved it there, and as one of the original employees, you had deep roots. How hard was it to walk away from that in order to pursue Ladies Get Paid as your full-time gig?
It took almost three months for us to figure out how I was going to extract myself from the company, being the second employee and considering the fact that I did the first town hall through them. But I came to them and said, “I need to do this full time. I can’t do this as part of something I do here. This has to be my focus, but can you partner with me? This can still be a Working Not Working initiative that you have, but I run it full time as my business.”
Ironically, we’re teaching negotiation workshops, and this business started with a massive negotiation with them. Very meta. I learned a lot. I don’t think I did that great of a job, but we have what we want, which is a partnership. I have nothing but lots of respect for the guys who run that company.
I suppose you could say that all companies start with a conversation, but that’s true for Ladies Get Paid and then some; you’ve grown to over 2,000 members in a matter of months, and the concept evolves based on what members want to discuss. How do you keep the vision focused?
My whole goal with this is we’re not going to change from the top down. It has to come bottom up. It has to be grass roots. First, women need a space to even be able to speak up comfortably about the challenges they experience in the workplace. Then, in my mind, and almost more importantly, we have to translate that inspiration that we experienced in the town hall into action. I’m not saying we all need to make more money or be the boss—that may not be what’s right for you as an individual—but you probably want to see progress in some way in your career. Each of my workshops, I help give you the next steps, tools for those next steps.
It’s fascinating. I have an anonymous survey that I give out asking people about how much they make. I want to know what you make, where you work, how many years of experience, what industry. Women said they don’t even know what to price themselves at. I want to debut some sort of interactive, live-updating, beautifully presented database where you can search for a job and then we can compare it to Glassdoor or any other resources out there. I think that these women need a home base. The funny thing is, there are so many tools out there for negotiating and salaries. How come we all felt like we didn’t know where to get the information? It’s there.
You’re addressing this taboo of women talking about money, which is obviously still a thing in 2016. What are the next taboo subjects we’ll tackle as a society? Or not as a society, necessarily. Maybe just as badass ladies.
I absolutely love that question, because to be honest, after I had the town hall experience, I didn’t immediately think, “Oh, more town halls about money.” I actually thought, “We need town halls about mental health. We need town halls about relationships and sex.” Everybody is here to support you. Where do people need that the most? I personally think it’s mental health, to be honest.
That would be the goal, at least for me. To be able to establish a brand that people trust, a community that’s loving and supportive where I could introduce other topics like mental health for us to talk about.
So…shall we talk about those bummer wage-gap stats? Thoughts/opinions?
[After that incident at the networking event], I’d had some kind of awakening and didn’t know what to do with it or where to go. I just started to do some more research about women in leadership positions. The more and more I read, the more my jaw would just drop. I knew advertising was not good. I know 11% of creative directors are women. I thought, “Well, I’ll look at the other industries that are better.” It’s not. 9% of film directors are women. We enter the legal and medical field at higher rates than men. We’re 60% of the graduating class, and we’re 14% of the partners and the doctors and the hospital administrators. Which is pretty good compared to hedge fund managers or women on fortune 500 companies, which is closer to 2 to 4%. Then I also realized that the wage gap, 78 cents per dollar–if you’re black or Hispanic, it’s 68 or 55%. The fact that I hadn’t heard that before?! Abominable. It really, really made me angry that we keep saying 78%. We were cutting out a huge population.
I just couldn’t stand by and do nothing. We’re discriminated against. I didn’t know we were so badly discriminated against. If you found out this information, wouldn’t you try to do something?
What have been some of the biggest challenges so far in getting LGP off the ground?
I have this huge shoot-for-the-stars mentality, but it’s not going to get there if you don’t build it step by step, day by day, and make that foundation rock solid. The tendency is to do something and then and go, “OK, let’s move on.” So you did a good town hall. But then you do it again even better. Then you do it again, and better than that one. Taking time in developing those town halls first, before I even think about other things? That’s been a challenge.
And then every day I have to fucking counsel myself, because my monkey mind is not wanting me to go there. I usually just want to eat sugar and throw a tantrum. I might be saying all these things that are quite wise, but actually practicing them is… I mean, I’m human. Come on [laughs].
Any advice you can pass on to other social-justice-minded women out there, or women looking to strike out on their own in general?
I say this to everybody: Get a therapist. Get a really good therapist. We’re kind of going back to mental health. The point being, know yourself. All the answers are within you, just like looking back at your past will help orient you towards your future. It’s there. I mean, you might be reading self-help books or asking your friends or defining success outside of yourself. What truly moves you and gives you peace? That’s what you should be doing and how you should be doing it.
I think we do not look inward enough. If you can, develop practices that help you really sharpen your ability to listen to that inner voice. Again, not to get all “guru” about it; I’ve been on meditation retreats where I literally wanted to punch the instructor in the face. I am not a guru, but there are disciplines within that, that you can absolutely take and apply to your life.
You don’t need to be anyone but yourself. If you keep listening to outside voices and not your own, then you’re going to be living somebody else’s idea of success. And that’s really hard to do.
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