We may use Slack and Google docs, but our underlying work culture a whole--with its pay disparities, paltry parental leave policies and harassment--is about as modern as a mimeograph machine. So how do you change the system? Through her groundbreaking events that invite the brightest minds (hint: yours!) to help solve the biggest social issues of our time, Margaret Smiley, founder of LYLAS Labs and data specialist at Quartet Health, is lighting the way for all of us to impact corporate life.
“Most of the intersecting issues we face in the workplace as women come down to the fact that the workplace has been defined by men to benefit men, and that hasn’t changed,” says Smiley. “No matter what industry you are part of, these issues have impacted you, whether you are a woman or not. We can work together to make work reflect what it actually is in 2019.”
For the Women @Work Hackathon at New York City’s Flatiron School on October 11 and 12, Smiley’s LYLAS Labs will host 100+ men and women to put their best thinking toward finding solutions to the gender pay gap, workplace harassment, hiring and fostering team diversity and providing care benefits for families. While the event, sponsored in part by Wager, is a hackathon, you don’t need to be a coder to snap up your ticket and contribute.
We talked to Smiley about what inspired her to create LYLAS, which fosters cross industry collaboration on feminist issues through community building, networking and labs like the hackathon, and how we can all be part of the solution.
WAGER: Tell us about how you came up with LYLAS. Was it informed by your work as a data specialist?
Margaret Smiley: I’ve worked in the health tech space for five years now. In my last role at a health insurance technology company, I found growth potential in applying my policy background and focus on healthcare. I became interested in mental health access, so I joined Quartet Health earlier this year, as part of the data integration team. We use data to identify people who would benefit from mental health care and help them gain access.
At the same time, as I advanced in my career, I kept seeing how much more refined and isolating career trajectories were becoming. When I started out, I was invited to networking events that were open to a broad range of women. Now I’m typically invited to events that are hyper niche--like cocktail hours for women in healthcare data. I started to see the same people everywhere I went. So many of our companies are trying to tackle large, systemic issues--such as access to care--that have been around since before we were alive. I saw the need for tackling these issues across industries.
With LYLAS, we are bridging divides across industries--media to non-profit to tech and so on--to come up with holistic solutions.
WAGER: When did you become passionate about addressing the issues women face in the workplace?
MS: As a woman, these challenges are inextricable from your identity, but I’ve had multiple defining moments. Every one of the issues we’ll be discussing In our hackathon--workplace harassment, pay disparity, gender inclusion and burden of care benefits, among other issues--has personally impacted me. I’ve faced them in every workplace I’ve been--whether working for the government, in retail, hospitality or tech--and I know most women have faced them, too.
Early on, I waitressed at a country club, and witnessed patrons harassing employees. The staff weren’t empowered to do anything, because they were trained that the customer is always right. Later, I worked in retail and was given sexualized outfits to wear along with lots of appearance-based rules to ensure I presented in a certain way to be part of the product.
At one point, I discovered I was being paid $20k less than two men in the same position with less tenure at the company. At the time, that loss in wages represented over a third of my income. That was an eye-opening experience. A lightbulb went off in my head about how large the problem is. Often, the decision to pay women less is unconscious, but the outcome is the same--we are paid many thousands of dollars less.
More recently, my mom was diagnosed with leukemia and went through a bone marrow transplant. She needed familial support, so my sister paused her career and moved back home to take care of our mom. It’s so often women who take on that burden and don’t receive any benefit for doing so.
WAGER: What your thoughts on creating change?
MS: Workplace income transparency is essential. In our puritan society, there are taboos on what is not appropriate to talk about, and unfortunately money is one of those things. It’s important for us as a society to talk about our income, and even more so to organize around it, as we’ve witnessed an unraveling of unions.
But it’s not just on the workforce to organize around issues of transparency. This starts with leadership. Entrepreneurs need to proactively think about this as they build companies, because it directly impacts the retention of their employees. As a business owner, you need to consider how teams are going to grow based on the spend you are willing to advocate. If you aren’t thinking of each employee as an investment opportunity to propel growth forward, you aren’t going to succeed. While you’re thinking about your sales pipeline and how you’ll push a good or service into market, you also need to think about your employees. They have to be part of the equation.
WAGER: How do your hackathons help solve these issues?
MS: We focus on social justice issues that we see as feminist issues. Last October, we held our first hackathon on reproductive rights, and people with advocacy groups as well as data and tech companies participated. This spring, we held one to develop solutions around environmental justice. Like the others in our series, I’ll consider Women @ Work to be successful if together we come up with solutions that can be implemented by any of our sponsor partners or our participants. I can’t wait to see the impact our participants will have on workplace gender disparities and hope they leave with perspective on a new industry.
WAGER: Cindy, our founder, will be participating! What can she expect?
MS: First off, she shouldn’t worry that she’ll need to code! Our goal is to create and implement ideas. Hackathons are about fostering collaboration to bring better solutions to the table and achieve a common goal.
We partner with the Flatiron School to provide us with engineers for each team. We also partner with subject matter expert sponsors--like Cindy--to be part of that team, so no one else needs to be a tech expert or a subject matter expert. Anyone who cares about tackling gender diversity in the workplace would be a perfect participant in this event.
WAGER: You’re so inspiring. Who inspires you?
MS: My mom is really my inspiration. She helped me frame my life in terms of what’s possible, not what’s expected. She’s extremely open minded and went against the grain. Never once has she prevented me from achieving what I saw as my path forward, even when she didn’t understand what the path looked like. She’s always been extremely supportive of what I want and allowed me to go after it. There is nothing more feminist than that!