“Five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap”, with Jessica Wooke of RobustWealth

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

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More conversations need to take place at the executive level. Organizations need to look at their entire ecosystems to inspect where change needs to take place to ensure there are adequate measures, policies and cultures to foster equality. Everything from recruiting to retirement services needs to be inspected.

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Wooke, Chief Experience Officer at RobustWealth. RobustWealth is an innovative fintech company and B2B digital wealth management platform headquartered in Lambertville, NJ. As Chief Experience Officer, Jess leads the strategic direction of all RobustWealth platform experiences. Jess has a diverse technical and customer-centric background. She previously spent four years at Comcast, most recently as part of the engineering team that launched the Xfinity Mobile product. She has gone against the grain and has been very successful in two male-dominated fields (tech and finance). As such, she is passionate about mentoring younger generations of women in fintech.

Thank you so much for joining us Jessica! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I grew up with two hardworking parents; my dad was a plumber and my mom a chemist, turned entrepreneur. Mom built and ran a successful retail business for over 30 years, and I grew up working alongside her. I think it’s safe to say I got my hardworking attitude, business acumen and technical/mechanical abilities from my parents!

In thinking through potential career paths, I wanted something that was fun, engaging, challenging and creative. I thought a career involving computers and creating software fit that bill, so I studied Computer Science, Information Systems and Technology, and Business at Drexel University. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems and a minor in IT. Thankfully, my desire to be in the IT industry has proved to be a good path for me thus far! Through Drexel’s Co-Op program, I was introduced to the world of Network Infrastructure Engineering and loved how my career began after those opportunities. It was a heavily male-dominated field, and I learned a lot about engineering, teamwork, leadership and even myself. I stumbled and fell and learned a lot through it all.

Finding my way into the still heavily male-dominated software development field as a technical program lead and scrum master was another entirely different joy. Though by this time, I saw that as an opportunity to challenge the status quo and push ahead with my voice, experience and perspective. I’d say those days of my career were a success and helped me to step into more coaching, leadership and team-building opportunities. The last five years have really been an interesting and rewarding stretch. I’ve overseen dozens of product launches by my various teams and met with customers to listen to their feedback and pain points. This present state of listening, learning and creating has been one of my favorite stops along the way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Early on in my career after taking on new responsibilities, a colleague approached me to share his congratulations. He made a comment that he hoped I would be properly paid now with these added responsibilities. I think he had the best intentions to call out the gap between my compensation and that of my peers, and it was clear he felt the discrepancy was unjust. This for me, however, was a shock. I didn’t know what to do with this information or how to react. It wasn’t something that was discussed openly or debated like it is today; there was no spotlight to shine on issues like this or space to discuss these experiences. This realization has certainly shaped me and how I approach things since, however.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a mistake exactly, but I find it funny now and it certainly was a great lesson in the long run. I recall when I was interviewing for a role, a colleague from a previous job volunteered to help the hiring manager screen me. He was asking some pretty strange questions. I knew he was aware of my skills and background and that I knew all the answers to his very basic questions. As it turned out, he was intentionally trying to drop some subtle hints about the role and its associated challenges, and I completely missed the message. Needless to say, I nailed the interview and got the job, only to find that it was nothing like what I expected or desired (duh!).

It sounds cliché but I endeavored to make the best of the situation, learned a lot about a new platform and added many great friends and connections to my personal network. At a much later happy hour reunion, I had a good laugh with my colleague when he finally spilled the beans about the interview hints he had been trying to drop for me! The even bigger lesson I learned is hints don’t always work. If you want to convey a message, just get straight to the point.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

It is still shocking to see the data around the wage gap. I think there are quite a few factors driving it. I by no means have all the answers here, but I’ll speak from my own experience and perception.

  1. I think for some women who have been in the workforce for a significant stretch already, there’s a challenge to overcome their fears and tune out the critic in their head to seize the opportunity and discuss these gaps. I felt this firsthand when I was entering the workforce. When confronted with the wage gap between myself and peers, I had no idea what to do. I was like a deer in headlights. I was not equipped mentally to march myself into my boss’ office or into HR to have a discussion. Worse, my inner voice would tell me to stop “whining,” and my irrational fears about being retaliated against would stop me from moving forward. So, I convinced myself I had to work my way up like everyone else. Looking back though, and knowing what I know now, not everyone else did earn their place, at least not in that regard. I thought that the rules of working hard, delivering quality results and demonstrating value were the only factors driving pay. I was so naive. Now I try to educate myself continually about these things and coach younger people, regardless of gender, about these issues.
  2. Working to find a clear path to action is another obstacle in our way. It’s one thing to talk about the issues, yet another thing entirely to continue to push the boulder up the hill and down the other side. Some organizations are nimbler and more adaptable while others are large and have decades of policies in place, thereby seemingly presenting more barriers to change. It’s sometimes hard to find the right champions for change, and it can be harder yet to find people with authority to make changes. Getting people past their current mindset and finding those with an authoritative voice to help within those organizations is a path forward to making the gap nonexistent.
  3. Collecting the data, studying the current landscape and communicating to the masses is a challenge. Enabling and creating a safe space for frank and open conversations about the issues is important as well. It’s sometimes difficult for people to feel safe having the conversation. I know I didn’t feel safe talking about my first experience with the gender wage gap until nearly a decade later. It’s the responsibility of my generation and those before me to pave the way and make the future better. We should do all we can to educate and mentor younger generations.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

Discussing the importance and value of women in finance and tech, as well as mentoring younger generations of men and women entering the workforce is how I help push for change. I think it’s helpful for people in my position to have an open dialogue. I recently joined the Ellevate Network, a global network for professional women dedicated to helping each other succeed. I look forward to connecting with other changemakers and discussing topics like this in safe, encouraging environments.

At RobustWealth, we also make a conscious effort shine the spotlight on the women in our firm whenever we can. One third of our executive team is women. While we know there is room for growth here, we believe that this is a great starting point and a step in the right direction.

We also look to Principal Financial Group, our parent company, for advice on how to make RobustWealth a great place for women to work. Over the years, Principal has been recognized by Forbes as one of the best places for women to work.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. More conversations need to take place at the executive level. Organizations need to look at their entire ecosystems to inspect where change needs to take place to ensure there are adequate measures, policies and cultures to foster equality. Everything from recruiting to retirement services needs to be inspected.
  2. For recruiters and HR, I would recommend reviewing the language used in job postings and being open to different approaches to recruiting. Just because the hiring process worked in the past, doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for the future. I have had tremendous success recruiting and helping my network through recommendations and referrals, which is sometimes a departure from traditional job postings. I recommend that leaders talk with their partners in HR and start the conversation on different methods for recruiting. I’ve found that overly long and drawn out job postings don’t always do the best job of attracting the top potential talent. Looking specifically at the younger generations entering the workforce, there is more interest in what the culture of the company is like and what a typical day would entail. Those should be highlights of the job postings if that is the targeted demographic for the position. Companies should better highlight all the extra perks and benefits they offer, in addition to a few brief bullets about the job responsibilities.
  3. Lean on agile principles, inspect and adapt existing benefits. There are great advancements being made in fintech today — why not use more of this amazing technology to better your employees’ retirement savings outlook? I love when a company uses their own technology to benefit their employees. For example, some fintech firms offer free financial planning for their employees. That’s a fantastic benefit, in addition to company matching 401(k) plans. This would help reduce the barrier for women who traditionally aren’t taking an active role in planning their financial well-being. According to a recent study from UBS Global Wealth Management, 58 percent of women leave financial choices up to their male partners.
  4. It’s amazing how big the gap is between men and women when looking at their retirement savings and other investments. Why make the retirement investment solutions that a company offers its employees a one-size-fits-all matching contribution? Companies should adjust the contributions or employer match to better serve the diversity of employee needs. What if we had a fintech firm offer more innovative investment products and a better factors-based asset allocation alongside this? Women and men approach investing differently, and the technology used to setup and manage their portfolios should take that into account. Leveraging risk-based behavior plus factor-based technology to select the right assets for a person is an advantage that everyone should be able to leverage.
  5. I have had great experiences attending coaching classes, seminars and training events geared toward women. I think more women should be offered access to these events and receive company sponsorship to attend a female-focused event at least once a year. It’s an investment in the employee’s growth with the opportunity to practice presentation, negotiation and coaching skills. This experience would benefit organizations in the long run, so it’s a win-win investment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to see more visibility for the stories about those organizations or even departments within companies that have been successful in closing the wage gap and making strides for more women in middle and upper management levels.

Organizations should support and sponsor their employees to join coaching groups or mentorships outside of their present roles. There’s so much potential to gain perspective, knowledge and understanding if you step out of your comfort zone and organizational silos.

I’m also a supporter of employees doing a skill/role rotation and being able to “intern” with a different team or organization for 6–12 months. Especially where women in technology is concerned, this provides opportunity for more women to learn about and experience different roles and career paths firsthand. As a visual and hands-on learner, I had the privilege of participating in a Co-Op through Drexel University, and that was the closest thing to a job rotation that I had ever done at that point. It opened my mind to consider the possibility of pursuing new roles and jobs that I previously didn’t think I would like or be good at.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be yourself. An original is always better than a copy.” This was a quote I followed very fondly in my youth and still to this day. I find when I’m true to myself, when there’s congruence in my actions and my core values/beliefs, I’m at my best. It’s also important that I stay my most authentic self now that I’m a mom, so that my children learn this very important life lesson.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I really admire the work that Sallie Krawcheck does as CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest. She’s knowledgeable and is a force for good when it comes to financial education for women, creating inclusive environments and standing up against things that don’t serve us or our business ecosystems any longer.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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