To Agitate, or Not? That is the question.

Were you struck when you heard that GM’s new CEO Mary Barra is only earning half of what her (male) successor made?

She may have shattered the “glass ceiling” as the first and only woman worldwide to head up a car maker company. But her pay is another story. In corporate governance filings released yesterday, we learn that Barra will be paid $4.4 million in total comp (base salary is $1.6M, and stock is rest). Her predecessor, Akerson, made $9M last year (base salary was $1.7M).

At one level, I am outraged. She’s getting paid 48 cents on the dollar to what a man got for the same job. And to put that in perspective, my work with the Obama Administrations Labor Task Force on Equal pay taught me that, even today – 2014– women still make only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. In many ways, she’s more qualified than her predecessor so outrage is probably warranted for both her, and the persistent societal issue. Because, to be sure, this is not a “woman’s issue” but a societal one. I would imagine men who have mothers or sisters, wives or daughters could take this issue to heart.


The corporate governance part of me knows that this will probably get fixed. Boards are often procedurally encumbered; they will need to vote on things like stock allocations in a very particular timeframe, making sure enough shares are available, that proper filing of stuff has been done, first voted on by the comp committee and then by the Board. It is quite possible, especially given some of the hints a GE spokesperson made today, perhaps even likely that the stock part of this picture will be adjusted shortly.

But then the question I faced throughout the day was this … is this topic even worthy of agitation? Or is that an overreaction. The Latin etymology of the word agitate is to “do, drive” but I wonder if today it is simply seen as pushing or being pushy, in an unacceptable manner.

In this specific situation, it could be easily argued that if you compare the base salary situation, she’s earning 94 cents on the dollar to Akerson. So good, right? Or, at least, maybe it’s not too bad? Maybe just leave it alone. Close enough.

Yesterday also happens to also be the anniversary of Rosa Park’s birthday. You might remember her as one of our modern heroes. She fought for and achieved civil rights by not getting up from a designated “black seat” so that a white person could sit down. She drew a line in the sand, and effectively said, “No more will I wait”. Her courageous dissent was personally quite uncomfortable – making her seem like a troublemaker, an agitator. But her courage also was the key thing that created change. One person‘s voice – when connected through others — has the power to snap entire groups out of their coma of accepted cultural norms, accepted group think.

Courage becomes contagious. And change happens.

And that got me questioning whether it was worth it to agitate the issue, or to leave well enough alone. When is it worth saying something, and when is it not? On the feminism issue I’ve clearly gotten known for it. If I haven’t seen someone for a while,  people tease – “hey you got that feminism issue tight between your teeth don’t you”, they say. I don’t know if I hide it well, but I flinch inside. Enough of those comments and it causes a pause for the next time an issue comes up. Like this. And so the question remains — do you keep quiet even when you can see the imbalance and hope / believe / have faith that it will be solved “some day” by “someone”. Or do you say something. Here, and now. Until the injustice ends.

I guess by writing the post, I’m signaling a personal bias.
But I’m also seeing in myself a reticence to do so.  How do you see this issue and what would you do?


16 Responses:

  1. Tim Krause. February 6, 2014 at 3:31 am  |  

    I don’t know if there has ever been a leader, a true change agent, who didn’t at some point say:

    – Why me.
    – Why do I feel like I have to do this?
    – Why can’t I just leave well enough alone?
    – Why am I wired differently?

    And it’s narrow and limiting (and a bit insulting?) being labeled by a cause.
    I can well imagine there are days when you want to scream “can’t you see the rest of me?”

    In answer to your question:
    Traditional upright washing machines have a center stalk in them. This stalk rotates and twists and spins.

    It only has one job: shake everything up until the clothes are clean.
    If it doesn’t twist and spin then the clothes can sit there forever in soapy water but change does not happen.

    That center stalk is called the agitator.

    As a businessman who believes in meritocracy and equality i hope you will hear this as encouragement: please agitate. Agitate like hell. And know there are a lot of people who support you in this cause, and are doing whatever we can to help at whatever level we find ourselves.

    Change will come but we gotta keep spinning.

    • Nilofer Merchant. February 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm  |  

      Do you remember Derek Siver’s talk — the second dancer? The second dancer made the first dancer, a leader. I feel like your note just helped me — and I hope you — see how much we’re doing this TOGETHER. Thanks, Tim.

      • Tim Krause. February 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm  |  

        Thank YOU, Nilofer.
        And if you are thinking about starting a flash mob of agitators count me in!

  2. Cheryl Sylvester. February 6, 2014 at 8:04 am  |  

    Nilofer — thanks for being openly in the dilemma. I’ll join you there for a few minutes.

    Yes, we know the system will correct itself eventually — and how do we know that? Because others have “agitated” to get to this point where the mindsets are shifting, and at least in individual cases such as Mary Barra, the unfairness of inequality for the same work is more recognized.

    You, we, stand on the shoulders of the previous agitators to do our part. Maybe it was easier to find that voice, when we were completely locked out of corporate leadership. Now that we’re part way in and we’ve learned that the game players are not evil or ill-intended (mostly) but habitual and unaware, it somehow seems less valid or necessary to ‘complain’ or ‘agitate’. And thus your dilemma.

    Perhaps it’s not about ‘agitation’ at this point, or perhaps the ‘agitation’ strategy needs to change in tone? Where once the agitators needed to be unreasonable because what they were up against was unreasonable, now our agitation must be informed by reason and data, as you do so well.

    Will reason be enough? Inequality certainly still needs to be called out. Is calling it out with facts, ‘agitation’?

    As for playing the ‘feminist’ label, I suspect that is more about others being uncomfortable and allows your perspective to be dismissed by them… your voice is important. All you’ve written about women’s leadership/entrepreneurship, VC’s, your own life journey to empowerment — is all still necessary at this time.

    So if that’s “agitation”, then go for it!

    p.s. I love Tim Krause’ wisdom about leadership, metaphor about agitation and encouragement!

    • Tim Krause. February 6, 2014 at 4:04 pm  |  

      Thank you, Cheryl. tk

  3. Andy Rotman-Zaid. February 6, 2014 at 8:05 am  |  

    Nilofer, in true keeping with the concept of onlyness, which to me is a clear signal to celebrate in yourself…
    this is not about feminism – this is about respect for human achievement and encouragement for ALL people to prosper harmoniously.
    ths is not about agitating for the sake of being agitating – this is about waking people up to inequity at all levels and can be seen even at the highest levels
    this is not about Nilofer the “agitator” – this is about creating awareness and continuing to contribute to change through that awareness.
    so let’s get the message out, that the US is not above the rest of nations and that all equality is a real issue and needs to be addressed on a global basis from those who suffer the most to those who have worked hard and deserve an equal chance at being acknowledged for their contribution.
    Onward and upward!

    • Nilofer Merchant. February 6, 2014 at 2:04 pm  |  

      Thanks for reminding me on why I do this. Sometimes, even I forget.

      • Andy Rotman-Zaid. February 6, 2014 at 3:51 pm  |  

        Thank you for sharing the idea of onlyness…it has become part of my vocabulary. And most recently the move from B2B and C2C to H2H has empowered me to think we are changing in very core ways in our perceptions and emphasis on how people communicate and when it is not simply transactional.
        We are about people and connection – there is a global change coming. I know this will be achieved by patience, persistence – some would say progressive approximation. Nilofer you stand up for this as a person and a leader. So the best I can do is acknowledge my onlyness, encourage others to understand there’s and stand tall and with courage and integrity believe in their journeys.
        Bottomline. – Agitate and think and be yourself! We are with you on this!

        • Nilofer Merchant. February 11, 2014 at 4:25 am  |  

          Andy –

          Thank you for this. Reading “we are with you” made me think that would make a great title of a book. 😉

  4. Heidi BK Sloss. February 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm  |  

    Interesting post. From my perspective you sound a bit discouraged: are we still fighting/agitating for the same cause after all these years? It is hard be a long time agitator. That is why it is easier in a group. Rosa Parks did not act alone. She was part of a movement. Unfortunately feminism has had dips and lulls, not to mention lots of backlash. For me, now in my mid 50’s I have spent less time these last 10-15 years fighting for my rights (remember take back the night marches?) and much of my time teaching my children to be change agents. Am proud that they are agitators. The?y know how to speak up for unpopular but just causes. They know how to gather up others to help out. They know when to let sleeping dogs lie. I am inspired by their exuberance!

    • Nilofer Merchant. February 6, 2014 at 2:03 pm  |  

      Yes the upside of groups is we can grant each other agency. Sometimes I can feel “all alone” as an agitator and advocate for equal rights. But then I can get support from others (like yourself) and find myself renewed. It is how we can grant each other MORE or less agency based on social support. My friend, Les Mckeown, was just teasing me the other day; he didn’t mean to make me feel uncomfortable about it. But if he had said, “I’m proud of you advocating” after the tease it would have felt different — it would have said, “keep going”. Good reminder for all our human interactions — we can embolden others or diminish them by when we say when they are doing hard things.

  5. Patrick Lalande. February 6, 2014 at 2:06 pm  |  

    Imagine change is like medicine. The patient is the company, The CEO is the medicine, the Board of Directors is the doctor, and the agitation is a healthcare advocate. The patient gets sick or is already sick and needs medicine. The first medicine prescribed usually is the medicine that has worked in the past.

    Often times a doctor will change the medicine if it doesn’t work or doesn’t work any more. But he does it with a modicum of trepidation for two reasons. First is that the patient may be allergic to the new medicine, and secondly, he does it to find the most effective with the least harmful side-effects. Would the healthcare advocate step into the middle of this process to tell the doctor what they thin is best? Normally not. The process, although maybe not as quick as the patient would prefer, is the standard practice and has worked in the past for the majority of patients.

    Let’s take this analogy a little further. If the patient needs medicine does the doctor prescribe the “latest and greatest”, highest cost, medicine on the market and then hope for the best? Or does he start with the “tried and true” and if necessary prescribes the medicine that does the best job for the patient regardless of cost? If a lower price medicine works out, only shown over a period of time, then regardless of whether the medicine’s price rises or falls over time, the doctor will probably keep the patient on the medicine.

    Even if the price was to rise above the price of the “latest and greatest”. In this case, the healthcare advocate still on the sideline. The patient is doing what the doctor thinks best and the process needs time to show whether or not it will work. When the process doesn’t continue to improve the patient’s health then the healthcare advocate might suggest a change of medicine or a change of doctors but usually doesn’t tell the doctor that; “Maybe he should use the more expensive medicine because the problem is the the patient isn’t paying enough.”

    Sometime people are the doctor. Sometime they are the patient. Sometime they are the medicine and sometime they are the healthcare advocate. The wisdom is to know which role you are playing at the time you should be playing a role and know that you shouldn’t be playing another.

    Who is the patient?
    Who is the doctor?
    Who is the medicine?
    Who is the healthcare advocate?
    Where do you fit in?

  6. Shanna Carpenter. February 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm  |  

    Always love your newsletters, but this one was particularly inspiring. I identified so much with your outrage and your feminism, but particularly so with the most vulnerable admission of reticence. I think that that’s a feminine quality, the ability to stand in vulnerability, to take a position on questioning instead of declaration, to invite others’ opinion, to seek knowledge as well as sharing it. I see it in myself and I wonder how it would appear to the world if I were to declare that position out loud, (would people think of me as weaker than if I simply declared my point-of-view?) and now I know that when like-minded people see it they resonate, understand and grow in respect. Thanks so much for sharing, and for taking a strong, feminist, feminine stance.

    And since I’m writing … To answer your question, although I struggle with it, I try my hardest to stand on the courageous side. It doesn’t always happen, I’m often intimidated by the thought that others will consider me a loudmouth, a trouble-maker. But the moments I regret most, the ones that haunt me for weeks and months after, are not the moments where I say something. They are the moments where I have kept quiet.

  7. Andy Roth. February 9, 2014 at 5:31 am  |  

    FIrstly, I agree with your stance. Throughout my career I have worked hard to get equal pay for my staff, regardless of gender–not always easy but am proud of what I have been able to do within my groups. On the surface it seems disproportionate but there may be a flip side. CEO’s are often seen as over-compensated in the first place. Also, it is note clear that ANY incoming CEO might not have been offered a lesser package than their predecessor until proven. Nadella gets less than Balmer. Also, while talented, she is not yet a proven CEO. So, the question that goes unanswered is whether the compensation would have been the same if a guy had been given the nod. We will probably never know. Always good to be aware of possible one-dimensional views and consider all of the possibilities. Nonetheless let’s hope she has truly unqualified success.


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