Fired for Getting Married
Testimony on Pay Equity to NYC Commission on Gender Equity
September 19, 2019
My name is Kimberly Watkins, and I want to talk about women who work in small businesses. When we talk about pay equity, it’s often about the pay gap. Women are paid $.80 on the dollar in the corporate world, but in small companies, the figure drops to $.66. This stark reality is alarming, and it needs to change, but I actually want to talk about another facet of pay equity: financial and job insecurity among women who are employed by small businesses.
And this is where my story comes in. Twelve years ago, I was a marketing executive with a successful young company called Manhattan GMAT, a test prep boutique for MBA admissions. When it was founded, in 2001, Manhattan GMAT didn’t have an office; the founder, Zeke Venderhoek, conducted interviews at Starbucks®. I was one of the first teachers he hired, then I became the first official employee of the company, as its Marketing and Student Services Director, in 2002. I did a little bit of everything back then: I made cold calls, hosted open houses, designed online ads, and tracked web users. I taped flyers to bus stops on Broadway and snuck postcards into Kaplan® books at Barnes and Noble®.
By 2004, Manhattan GMAT’s full-time staff had expanded to include a finance and human resource person, a tech manager, an office manager and a small marketing and student services staff. We expanded nationally and online, so we were increasingly immersed not just with the daily operation, but also with the scaling of the marketing operation, analytics, and student services. I had a marketing budget, and met all of my revenue targets. By then the company was a multi-million dollar firm, and I was well compensated. Concerned about my long-term financial security, I periodically asked Zeke to let me invest in the company, as I believed in its future and mine along with it. But he insisted on remaining sole owner whenever I brought it up.
Two years later, the company underwent a big change. Zeke’s dream had always been to start a charter school, so he hired Andrew Yang as the company’s president. Andrew Yang was not at all involved in the running of the company before this time. He had taught a couple of classes, and I knew him, but I knew nothing of his work background.
Within a very short period of time after starting with Manhattan GMAT, Andrew reorganized the company, promoted me to Senior Director, and set more aggressive goals for me and my team. Andrew and I worked well together, and had a high level of mutual professional respect.
Around the same time that Andrew arrived, I was planning my wedding. The operations at Manhattan GMAT had the expected pace of a growing company, but were going very well, and I met all of my high-level growth marks despite having to select caterers and bridesmaids dresses. In preparation for being away two and a half weeks for the wedding and honeymoon the longest I would have been away since the start of the firm, I worked non-stop to have all the pieces in place during my absence.
As Manhattan GMAT had grown and succeeded over the previous six years, people’s personal lives had also evolved. The founder had gotten married, taken a two-week honeymoon to Asia, and had had his first child. The second employee, our finance manager, had also recently married and was about to start a family. I was 39, older than both of them, and I was also eager to start a family.
Two weeks later, on October 15, 2007, jetlagged and exhausted, I was back to work. My team had performed seamlessly while I was away. But on the third day that I was back from my honeymoon, Andrew asked me to come into his office after everyone else had left. And behind closed doors, he opined that I wouldn’t want to keep working as hard as I had now that I’d started this new personal chapter. That as a married woman, I’d want to focus on my new life.
Despite my hitting every single revenue mark set for me, despite not a single employment infraction over the six years, Andrew Yang fired me because I got married. And just like that, my new life was shattered. My financial security was blown to bits.
However, before I was willing to sign my termination agreement, I wanted to confirm that my departure wasn’t part of a plan for Manhattan GMAT to be sold. Several incidents had led to speculation that a sale could be imminent, including a cease-and-desist letter from a competitor regarding a sample question on our website. I wanted to speak to Zeke. During multiple compensation discussions with him over the years, I had asked about buying into the company, as I believed so much in what we were creating and my role in doing so. In each case, Zeke indicated that he wished to hold 100% ownership. When I asked Zeke whether my firing was connected to a sale, he said it wasn’t. He said that he remained sole owner and that he backed Andrew’s choice to get rid of me. However, Andrew Yang allegedly was allowed to buy into the company and gain that financial stability of which I had been deprived.
I was an at-will employee at Manhattan GMAT. Technically Andrew could fire me without reason; however, he did give me a reason. I did not fully grasp the significance of this breach of ethics at the time and really wish that I knew then what I know now about gender issues in the workplace. My termination structured a monthly payment, worth a fraction of my compensation package, over two years, so I signed on the dotted line. We even crafted a narrative about my departure, that I was leaving by choice, in order for me to save face. I was so broken, so shattered that I chose to keep a secret about my departure in order to save myself from the embarrassment.
The law does not protect employees from the greed of their employers, and I was a drag on Andrew’s bottom line. He could find cheaper ways to get my work done, to get closer to the exit strategy that lie ahead: the sale of Manhattan GMAT to Kaplan®/Washington Post® for an estimated $88 million.
I have never gone public with this information. As you can probably imagine, recent events have brought these memories back with a vengeance, reopened the wounds from which I have never quite recovered. So I decided to come forward with my story. We need action on gender issues, so if the high profile individual’s involvement in the story helps it gain traction, let’s go for it. More than half of the work-force is employed in small businesses. Yet men reap virtually all of the financial rewards in growth sectors, mergers, and buy-outs. A good example of this is that women were awarded less than 3% of venture capital in 2018. It’s high time for change.
The pay gap and job security are part of institutional patriarchy, they are part of Times Up, and part of MeToo. They are all forms of abuse against women. Andrew Yang didn’t harass me physically. But he did treat me unjustly. He violated me economically. And I am ready to fight for solutions that protect women in all areas of our lives.
Thank you to the City of New York for hosting this Pay Equity hearing.