Fixing the Leaky Pipeline

Katica Roy’s start-up, Pipeline Equity, uses AI software to close the gender-equity pay gap

By Ellen Lee

On Christmas Day 1956, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution, President Dwight Eisenhower’s personal plane flew 21 Hungarian refugees to their new home in the United States. Katica Roy’s father and her three older sisters were among those onboard.

Part of Roy’s legacy, that act of generosity, has inspired her work today. “There was the sense of being incredibly fortunate to be born in the United States and also the sense of giving back,” she says.

Roy is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Equity, a Denver-based start-up. Launched in 2017, Pipeline addresses the gender inequities that are still pervasive in the workplace. A 2019 analysis of US workers by the Pew Research Center found that women earned 85 percent of what men earned, which meant that it would take an additional 39 days of work for women to make what men did in 2018. Meanwhile, a 2018 World Economic Forum report calculated that it will take 202 years to reach parity in the workplace at our current pace.

Pipeline’s mission is to close the gender wage gap. Its artificial intelligence–powered software encourages businesses to make less biased decisions as they recruit, hire, promote, evaluate, and pay their employees. Specifically, the software makes recommendations to managers when they’re in the process of writing a performance review, suggesting potential job candidates, offering a promotion, or making other employee-related decisions.

It’s not just a matter of bringing equity to the office, says Roy. It makes good business sense too. It builds employee loyalty and, as Pipeline research has found, companies that moved closer to gender equity have also seen their revenues increase.

Diversity Woman: Can you give an example of how Pipeline works?
Katica Roy: For instance, we read through performance reviews and call out biased phrases. Then we calibrate the ratings, such as meets expectations, exceeds expectations, etcetera. We ensure that for similar performance, the rating is applied equitably.

We found that women are underrated
4 percent of the time. So for similar performance, women will receive a lower performance rating. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you extrapolate it, you see what’s happening in the talent pipeline today: women are 51 percent of entry-level employees, but only 22 percent of the C-suite. We have a leaky pipeline.

DW: What kinds of words and phrases does the software look for?
KR: I’ll give you an example. Often a company has words that describe the culture of someone who works there. For instance, Google (not a Pipeline customer) has Googlers. We found that, on average, women are held to a higher account versus men. If you’re a woman, and you’re not regarded as a Googler—that is, not fitting into the culture—you are less likely to get ahead. You’re probably less likely to be promoted than if you were male.

DW: People often say that moving up is about networking and finding a mentor or sponsor. How does that factor into Pipeline’s mission?

KR: Certainly we need to continue to give women lessons in skills like negotiation. But the truth is that women are not broken. The system is broken. We need to fix the system. It is the system that undervalues women, not the women themselves.

We focus on changing the system so that it values women equitably. If we can change the way that decisions are made, at the point that they are made, we can begin to change the system. It’s the culmination of all those little decisions taken together that ultimately changes how the system values people.

DW: How did you come up with the idea for Pipeline?
KR: I fought to be paid equitably twice—and won. So I knew the experience of women in the workforce. I had to use my voice to stand up. But why did I have to spend my time researching my rights in order to be treated fairly? What if we had a system that was proactively fixing the gap?

I came up with the idea when I was on a radio show for game-changing women. The topic was negotiation and pay. The host asked if we thought the pay gap could be closed in our lifetime, and I said, “Well, not until we make it an economic issue.” That was the aha moment.

DW: You sought to be paid equitably twice. What happened?
KR: The day after I got back from my maternity leave, they asked me to manage another team, in addition to the team I was already managing, which was a great opportunity. Two weeks later, they asked me to take over another team. My male colleague was asked to take on another team and received additional compensation for that new team. I didn’t receive anything. So I did my research, and I found the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act [the wage discrimination law signed by President Obama in 2009]. I called human resources. To their credit, they increased my pay and gave me back pay.
Another time, I was negotiating my salary with my new manager. But human resources sent me the offer without reviewing it with my manager. It was $40,000 a year less than what my new manager was going to pay me. So I said, “I want to work for you, but I will not work for that. I will work for what we agreed upon.”

DW: What was it like raising capital for Pipeline? Did you feel there was some momentum or more awareness about these issues?
KR: I launched Pipeline in April 2017. During that time, there was Susan Fowler at Uber [in February 2017, Fowler published a 3,000-word account of the gender discrimination she faced at Uber, which led to the ouster of founder Travis Kalanick and others]. Then there was all the venture capital stuff that broke open that summer [in June 2017, several female entrepreneurs accused a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist of sexual harassment; he resigned]. And then we had #MeToo. That was the year I launched Pipeline.

The conversations were just starting to be had, so I don’t think it made a difference in raising capital as a female founder.

There’s research on raising capital that shows that female founders are asked prevention questions—how they’re going to try to prevent the downside of their start-up—versus male founders, who are asked promotion questions. That’s one of the pieces that leads to women raising less money. In my anecdotal experience, it seems a little bit better now. But it’s a pretty far cry from where we need to be in terms of funding female founders. DW

Ellen Lee is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

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