Strong Feelings

Fix Systems, Not Women

Episode Summary

What would you do if you found out you were being paid $25,000 less than your peers, and that while they were allowed to work from home, you were expected to show up in person?

Episode Notes

What would you do if you found out you were being paid $25,000 less than your peers, and that while they were allowed to work from home, you were expected to show up in person? 

Kate Rotondo had both happen while working at one of the largest and best-known tech companies in the world, and the experience profoundly changed her relationship to work. Kate joins Sara to tell her story of institutional betrayal—and how it took her from working in code to working in clay.

I had to let go of the responsibility of providing for my family. I had to let myself become expensive. I also had to shift my sense of what's important to me from getting my career back and earning that money to reclaiming my time—to becoming rich in something else, if it wasn't going to be career accolades, and it wasn't going to be respect at my job, and it wasn't going to be the money that came from that. I kind of had to shift and think, 'What I'm asking for here at work is to have the same lifestyle as my colleagues.' My colleagues wake up in the morning. They don't drive three hours to get to work…So how do I get that? How do I get the quality of life that the men around me have? How do I regain a sense of entitlement to that time? That I'm entitled to have free time. I'm entitled to have passions.

—Kate Rotondo, founder, Equal Clay


Episode Transcription

Kate Rotondo 0:00 When I asked my director why he paid me less, he said, "Because you're less technical than your peers." And whether or not that statement is true, it stuck.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher 0:11 What would you do if you found out you were being paid $25,000 less than your peers, and that while they were allowed to work from home, you were expected to show up in person? Today's guest had it happen while working at one of the largest and best-known tech companies in the world. And that experience? It profoundly changed her relationship to work.

KR 0:33 I'm Kate Rotondo. I am a small batch ceramicist living in San Francisco, California, with my partner and my kid.

SWB 0:43 So how did Kate go from working in code to working in clay? Stay tuned.


SWB 1:02 Hey, everyone, welcome to Strong Feelings. I'm your host, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and today on the show, we'll be hearing the whole story from Kate Rotondo. It includes a pay equity battle, a shift in priorities, and a whole lot of healing. And I cannot wait to share it with you. So let's start at the very beginning. 

KR 1:20 I graduated college with a major in French studies, a minor in dance. And when I started into the workforce, I realized the jobs available to me were pretty boring. And I wanted to do work where I would be respected for skills that I had fought hard to learn. And so I went to school for three years to get a software engineering certificate. And long story short, became a software engineer. I worked at a couple of startups. I had some time as a stay-at-home parent. And then when I returned to the workforce, returned more in a capacity of teaching and writing about software. I had taught at General Assembly; I had taught a college-level course at Mills College, both about Swift. I had spoken at conferences in more countries than I have fingers. Been teaching for a long time.

SWB 2:16 So that's what Kate was doing in 2018. By that point, she was working at Udacity, an online learning company, creating iOS courses.

KR 2:24 My interest was in Swift, and at Udacity, the mobile development courses were kind of fringe. They weren't the most exciting thing going on at the company. The company was kind of invested in machine learning, AI, that was not what I was working on. So I wanted to go to the mothership, right? Like, I wanted to go to the place where Swift was invented.

SWB 2:46 So Swift is a programming language specifically for building iOS applications, meaning for iPhones, iPads, things like that. Which means the mothership Kate wanted to go to? That was Apple.

KR 2:58 I joined Apple in 2018 as a software engineering author. So that was in the department called Developer Publications where we wrote the docs and tutorials, any collateral material about how to use frameworks and APIs, or even Swift programming language at its most basic level. So I was really excited to join the team and to contribute. When I was at Udacity, I learned about paying inequity there, which is part of why I wanted to leave. And when I negotiated my job at Apple, I negotiated hard for the things that were important to me. 

3:34 So I was a single mom living on my own at the time, and flexibility around my work hours and work location was important to me. So during that negotiation, I tried really hard to get work-from-home days. And at the end of the salary negotiation, they agreed to one work-from-home day a week to start with a second added six months later, pending my performance. And I felt really proud of myself in that negotiation. You know, it's scary to ask for things that a company is not willingly offering or giving you. And I felt pretty good. The salary was also like 20k or 30k over what I had been making at Udacity, and it was the most I've ever made in my life. So I felt pretty good on both fronts. I negotiated hard. I'd gotten what I needed to the best of my ability.

SWB 4:26 So Kate's feeling proud of herself and pretty excited about her new role.

KR 4:30 I started on my first day at Apple and learn that I'm placed on a team where I'm the only employee who comes into the office every day. The other three teammates, all men, worked fully remotely. And I was like, "Wow, why? Like why, why? Why?"

SWB 4:49 What did they tell you? How'd they answer that?

KR 4:50 So no, no, I mean, I was asking in my own head. I didn't have the vocabulary in that moment to ask my boss, and that's actually something I've learned a lot about since: I was dependent on that job for my livelihood, for my money, for being able to save money for a house someday, to be able to pay for my kid's college someday. Questioning or bringing up conflict on my first day would have been really threatening to my own security. And I've learned that when you are dependent on somebody else for what you need, there are actually a lot of psychological processes that in order to protect your survival will make you not see accurately what's going on. So I wish I had been able to admit to myself like, "Wow, this is messed up, you got to get out of here, like, just turn around and leave." But I can also be kind to past Kate and know why she didn't.

SWB 5:45 So Kate set aside her feelings and got to work. It was more boring than she'd expected. She says she thought she'd be doing more educational work, but mostly? Mostly she was writing something like a dictionary, documenting information about Swift in really, really basic sentences. It didn't capture her attention, like teaching had. But hey, she was at the mothership. So she trucks along, keeps on going. 

KR 6:10 So about six months later, one of the guys from the team who had been contracting up until then was getting an offer to join the team full-time. And he asked me to talk about pay, because he wanted to know if his offer was going to be fair. And he knew the federal level laws, the California state laws, and the company policy all permitted us to talk about pay. So he asked me what I made, and I told him. And then he told me his offer, which was I think $25,000 higher in base salary, 20k, more in RSUs. And he was going to be still working fully remotely from another state. 

6:50 And at that point, I think that was the wake-up call to me that I was like, "Something's really not right, like I'm being really undervalued here and given very, very different conditions for working here than the men around me." This is still just one guy. I don't know if it's a deeper problem, or if it's just this one guy is really incredible. But I knew I had to get more data. So over the next six months, I talked to eight men in my org, and they all made more. So, you know, once you collect data that the closest man is making $10k more than you at your level, and for this guy you talk to you at the next level is making $75k more. Yeah, and you start to learn more about other people's experience and see that you're leveled the same as kids a few years out of college, when you're 20 years into your career. Why wasn't I leveled at that next level, making that $75k more and working fully remotely? At that point, it was hard to ignore. 

7:50 So I decided to do something about it after my performance review. I'd been there about a year. My boss raised my base salary by $5k, gave me a $5k annual bonus, and then did not refresh my RSUs.

SWB 8:08 So for those of you who haven't worked in a tech company like this, RSU stands for restricted stock units. So this is stock that you receive in a company but not right away. That's why they're restricted. So you don't get the shares until they vest, which means you have to stay at the company long enough for your stock to vest. It happens on a schedule, typically over a few years, a common one is over four years, with different chunks that you start getting earlier than that. So at a lot of the big tech companies, the stable places like Apple, RSUs are a major part of people's income. It's a reason that you hear people talk about total compensation, not just about salary. And so this was something Kate was really banking on.

KR 8:50 You know, I was commuting three hours a day driving from San Francisco, and whatever in my head had thought, this is worth it because I can save up the money to buy a house, like, this is going to enable my upward mobility....My grant coming in had been 110, vesting over four years. My grant, the second year was 3000. So when those RSUs weren't there, I thought, "I can't work like this for this money. It's not healthy for me, it's not good for me." And what I tried first was to address the problem internally, right? To say to my boss, like, "Hey, I know you're paying me less. I already know my base salary, even with the $5k that you just added is a good $10k below the next guy. That's not cool. And you gave me no indication that my performance was at a level that you thought risked my RSUs." I will say I got a good performance review. I wasn't on a performance improvement plan or anything, right, like they just cut the RSUs

SWB 9:52 Now, of course, we are talking about high-paying jobs. We're talking about a privileged field; like, a lot of people never see this kind of money. But we're also talking about a single mom hoping to be able to buy a house in the city she's raising her kid in. We're talking about a single mom who wanted stability for her family. And it felt like that dream was slipping out of reach. And as Kate thought more and more about her situation, she got more and more upset at the unfairness of it all.

KR 10:20 My performance was being measured against men who didn't spend three hours a day on the highway, who had three hours a day to either rest or to be pushing hard on some project with a deadline. And I thought, "There is no way that I can make up that gap given the conditions I'm trying to work under." So I told my boss. He did nothing, like several weeks went by. I told him, "I'm gonna talk to your boss, if you don't," and he was like, "Go ahead." So I did. That guy brought in ER. That's the nail in the coffin. They did an "internal investigation," I put that in quotes. I don't think they investigated what they were supposed to. They came back and said, "We're gonna make a $0 adjustment. You are paid appropriately for a senior person in your role." 

11:09 And I was like, "Wow, this is some gaslighting right now because I know the men at my level are making more. So what's more senior than senior?" I guess the final nail was me going out to dinner with my partner and him saying, "You know what? I think you should leave, like, and I think we can figure it out. And we're gonna find a way to be okay. But this is harming you."

SWB 11:33 How did it feel to hear that from him?

KR 11:35 Oh, you know, tough because I was trying really hard to be an independent person. You know, I had gotten out of a marriage that hadn't been good for my finances, for my financial situation, or for my career. And I had spent four years at that point trying to build back up my own professional identity. And the idea of just stopping was completely counterintuitive. And at the same time, I knew he was right. I knew that I was fighting really hard at a place where I shouldn't have to be fighting. I'm a valuable employee. My contributions should be valued. If I can't even get the people who have power over me to be willing to pay me as much as the man who sits in the next desk over, what am I doing here? 

12:29 I had to accept that I wasn't going to be the breadwinner for my family. I wasn't going to be able to ever afford a house on my own. The way that I think of base salary and RSUs is that your base salary is kind of the money that you live off of day-to-day, and the RSUs are what enable you to have bigger goals, long term goals, like maybe someone wants to start a business someday, and that's gonna become their bootstrapping money. For me, it was I wanted to be able to put a down payment on a house, right? And I thought, after four years of earning something on the order of 110 RSUs a year, maybe finally enough in the Bay Area to put a down payment on a house, which around here costs like $1.5, $2 million, just for like, a single floor of a duplex. 

13:19 And so I had to let go of the responsibility of providing for my family. I had to let myself become expensive. I also had to shift my sense of what's important to me from getting my career back and earning that money to reclaiming my time, to becoming rich in something else if it wasn't going to be career accolades, and it wasn't going to be respect at my job, and it wasn't going to be the money that came from that. I kind of had to shift and think, "What I'm asking for here at work is to have the same lifestyle as my colleagues." My colleagues wake up in the morning. They don't drive three hours to get to work. They just show up, they roll into the the next room over, and turn on their computer, and they're there. So how do I get that? How do I get the quality of life that the men around me have? How do I regain a sense of entitlement to that time, right? That I'm entitled to have free time. I'm entitled to have passions.

SWB 14:21 And then you quit. 

KR 14:22 I quit. 

SWB 14:22 Oh, and the timing of all this? Y'all, it was March 2020. So just as Kate was putting in her notice, the world was shutting down.

KR 14:31 On my last day, March 20, I drove alone to an empty building because everyone had started working remotely two weeks prior for COVID. Got all my things from my office and left my laptop in a totally empty place. Like, there was no goodbye party. There's no people seeing me off. I don't know, whatever normal things you have for closure, I didn't have. And I also—I had been thinking, you know, "I'm gonna quit the job. And then I'm gonna have some time to myself to sort myself out while my kid is at school for the rest of the school year and my partner goes to his job in-person," right? Like, I'll be able to be alone and cry or whatever I need to do. And that also didn't happen. We were all home for the pandemic together, and I suddenly had pandemic mom responsibilities. I'm really thankful I was able to be present with my kid during that time. I think that was a really hard time for him as an elementary schooler to be suddenly cut off from all of his friends, suddenly cut off from all of his life. So I was able to be present, processing that grief.

SWB 15:42 So Kate did all the pandemic stuff that other parents, especially moms, were doing. She made a lot of soup. She took her kid on bike rides. She knit scarves. She didn't try to look for a job or figure out her next move. She tried to let herself rest. But she also told me that it was hard. And not just because she was pandemic parenting, but also because she felt like she needed to prove to the world that she still had good things happening in her life, that pandemic parenting was going great, that her domestic life was perfectly Instagrammable. And that wasn't the only way she felt like she needed to prove herself.

KR 16:16 After I left, I had some things ringing in my ears. You know, I'd had a lot of really horrible conversations with managers, everyone higher than me in the hierarchy at Apple. When I asked my director why he paid me less, he said, "Because you're less technical than your peers." And whether or not that statement is true, it stuck. That is part of the harm that was done to me. And I don't think I even realized it on a conscious level, but I needed to prove to myself that I am as technical as everybody else. 

16:51 As fall was approaching, I decided to sign up for some community college courses, I thought to maybe fill in gaps of what I maybe was missing or didn't feel that confident in. So I took computer architecture, I took data structures, which I'd taken before, but like 20 years ago. Gosh, what was my third class? Oh, discrete math, which I'd also taken before, but ancient history. Yeah. And I spent all of that fall, so fall of 2020, working really hard on those classes, and then acing them, right, and being asked to be a TA. And it sort of only occurred to me after the grades came in, like, "Wait, you know you're right?" Like, why were you doubting that? Why were you fighting so hard to prove that? 

17:39 And I don't regret that I spent the time to sort of refresh that knowledge, but the act of doing that made me realize that's not the issue. You've always been technical enough. The problem is other people automatically seeing you as less than. So after the grades came in, that is when I made a shift and thought to myself, "Why are you working so hard to prove your abilities to men who don't want to see it? There's no amount of studying and practice and more education that you can get to make men who don't want to see it see it. So, what if you don't? Like, what if you stop? What if you just stop trying to prove yourself as a technical person? What else could you do? What possibilities open up? And that was when I decided to try to consciously spend more time with women.

SWB 18:31 So in the spring of 2021, Kate signed up for something different, not a technical class, not a certificate, nothing to prove she could do the work that she'd been doing for years. Instead, it was a program called IGNITE, run by Majo Molfino, who wrote the book Break the Good Girl Myth. It was all about designing your creative purpose, and it required participants to commit to building out a creative idea they had, something like a book, or a business, or an event. Could be anything. 

KR 18:58 I explored the idea of writing a book about what I experienced at Apple. I've kind of glossed over this, but in that summer and fall prior, I had also pursued some courses for legal action against Apple. So, I had not only my experience of my own pay inequity, but the experience of trying to use legal channels to improve things, to get some injunctive relief, meaning getting someone to slap Apple on the wrist. It never happened. I wasn't successful. But I did learn a lot by engaging in that fight and trying to figure out like, how does that work? 

19:34 So I spent that eight-week program kind of building up my courage to use design thinking principles to create prototypes and just tiny, tiny bits of writing or the table of contents for a potential book, for example, and then show that to people and get their feedback, and then iterate, move on, create another prototype, show three more people. And that experience was really valuable because it was the first time that I had started writing, kind of processing in written language what had happened to me, and I got a lot of support from the other women in the group. Everyone was just so positive about, like, "Wow, it's incredible what you did, Kate. The fact that you collected all that data, the fact that you tried to get people to do the right thing internally, that is a story worth telling." 

20:23 And I do believe it's a story worth telling. And I think healing from trauma often involves speaking about the trauma when you can, when it's safe enough to. But I also kind of didn't have it in me to pursue that goal at that intensity at that time. I mean, partly because I was still going through my legal processes. So I'm thankful for that experience for helping me start to find my voice, which I feel like was lost. Actually, my partner says to me, my voice was never lost, but that I'm looking for my song, which I find incredibly lovely and poetic. But yeah, that experience helped me start to put into words what I was going through, and that's a process that I'm still continuing with today.

SWB 21:07 Okay, so at this point, Kate thought she was done with proving herself technically, but then something unexpected happened:

KR 21:14 I also was accepted into a fellowship at, which was a fellowship to practice technical interviews for people from marginalized groups. I think I had applied to the program for a previous cohort sometime in the past, I don't even remember when they ran it, and I wasn't accepted then. So when I was accepted in spring of 2021, I was like, "I have to do this." I was just, I was terrified of doing technical interviews. I thought, "I can't, it's too stressful to have whether or not I get a job hinge on how well I can whiteboard in 45 minutes." 

21:50 But what I learned in that process was most of my interviewers passed me on the interviews. We did seven interviews. I passed six of them, failed one. That's six people who would have hired me. But kind of the consistent feedback I would get in each interview was that I didn't seem to be that fluent with a certain API, or that, you know, I'd had to take time looking up a certain API. Like, how do you get all of the keys of a dictionary in Swift, for example. And my big aha moment, was, oh, wow, partly, I'm not fluent with that because I'm not coding every day, right? So if the expectation is that I'm someone who's coding every day, I'm never gonna live up to that. It's not what I'm doing. I'm momming every day. 

22:36 Secondly, all of those computer science classes I just took last semester were in Java. And the APIs are different than when I'm trying to do it in this interview in Swift. And then third, though, the big important one is that to look up the APIs, I had to go to the documentation written by the team that traumatized me. I know who writes which pages. I know the issues in that org. I know how those people harmed me. Technical interviews, they're not built to help people like me who have the echoes of the director of that department saying to you that you're not technical enough to be paid fairly. When I'm in an interview, I'm getting retraumatized. So that to me, was also a key clue to you know what? I know I can follow this problem. I can solve this problem if you give me the time and space to do it. I never will be interested in proving that I can do it in 45 minutes because I'm super fluent and don't have trauma.

SWB 23:37 So Kate decided to focus on healing, and parenting, and just surviving 2021. And then finally, last fall, her kid went back to school in person.

KR 23:48 And that freed me up from only doing pandemic momming to having my days to myself, right, like what I'd been waiting a whole year and a half for. And at the same time, a pottery studio opened up in my neighborhood that was renting out independent artist spaces. So for $400 a month, I could have my own work table and my own rack of shelves, I had done pottery in community studios as just a regular shelf member where you have one tiny shelf where you have to keep all your work and tools. And the idea of spreading out in this way, like I saw the owner post the photo of the space on Instagram, and I just thought my heart is leaping. I don't know what this is, but I think I need to do it.

SWB 24:34 As much as Kate wanted to go for it, she also had her doubts.

KR 24:37 I had a lot of questions like who am I and I consider myself an artist? I've never gone to art school, never got praised for art growing up in my art classes. If anything, I felt like I was really bad at it. I've been practicing pottery for two, three years now but as a hobby. Who am I to take up this space? And then I realized, like, all I have to do is pay someone $400 bucks a month. Like, that's the price of entry, and that price is pretty low. You know, if I think to what all of those men that I worked with at Apple spent on their hobbies a month, I doubt any of them feel guilty about spending $400 a month, right? They're not worried about spending $400 a month, maybe I can allow myself to be that expensive. 

25:18 I started to think about it more, and I was like, this is actually exactly what startups are. Startups are guys having an idea, like, "I want to make a thing." And they know it's gonna take money to get there. And they raise venture capital, which is money they spend without making it back immediately, possibly for years. So yeah, I had to shift my mindset to, "It's okay for me to be expensive. And actually, my expense is not that expensive." You know, it's like $5,000 over the course of a year to rent that space. That's actually not that expensive.

SWB 25:52 So Kate decided she was in.

KR 25:54 I started at the studio in August of 2021. That kind of gave me the permission slip to think of myself as a real potter, right? Like, I was switching from being a hobbyist to actually, this is what I do every day. When I first started creating work, I was just trying to better my skills. I was trying to do things I'd never done before, like make test tiles to test different glazes or try to do production throwing, meaning create the same shape and size over and over as opposed to creating, you know, one-off pieces. And then one day, I found myself with a mug to decorate and just sort of stream of consciously started carving the words "pay her more" into it. And I had not up until that point even thought about the idea of connecting ceramics with my pay equity experience. But it felt really good. 

26:52 I had painted big black letters, "pay her more," and was carving dollar signs into this thing, and you know just starting to figure out like, what do I want to say around this? And how do I want to get people to think about this? In ceramics, you're making things like—or at least, for me, I was making functional wear like mugs and planters, which are things people have in offices, and I started thinking about the possibilities there to, you know, have someone hold a mug in their Zoom call, right, that their colleague sees that says something like, "Hey, feel free to ask me my comp". Or, you know, maybe it has two circles that have the mathematical symbol for union, you know, with the shading to say like, "wink, wink, let's talk about this." 

27:38 Maybe there's a way that I could use ceramics to get people to say things that they maybe aren't even willing to say yet in words. So I started filing the paperwork for a sole proprietorship, so that I would be able to sell my work and, you know, handle it properly taxwise and stuff. So I founded a company called Equal Clay. And you know, it's a play on words with "equal pay."

SWB 28:08 Equal Clay. It's such a great name. You can check out her website at But she's actually sold out of all of her "pay her more" mugs as well as her "fix systems, not women" mugs. That's the one I really want to get my hands on.

KR 28:23 The idea there is being a potter is what allows me to have an equal lifestyle to my peers. I don't mean lifestyle in terms of like, "what can I afford," right? Like, they own their houses. I don't own my house. I rent an apartment. They are going to bank all sorts of money that I will never earn. So I'm not talking about lifestyle like that. But I'm talking about creating a life where I wake up in the morning, and I don't spend an hour and a half on the highway just getting to work only to be paid less than my peers. I actually am in control of my work life and how much I make. 

29:01 I am the one who sets the prices for my mugs. You know, I'm the one who decides what my work hours are. So I can start after my kid goes to school in the morning, and I can stop just before he gets home. And I don't have to answer to anybody about that. You know, there's no boss looking at me and thinking, "Wow, Kate's really shirking because she left at 3:30 today." I can preheat the oven at 3:30 to make cookies to be warm when my kid gets home at four and, like, that can be my best life.

SWB 29:34 So while Equal Clay is going well, like I said, Kate sold out of all of her mugs, and she's enjoying the power and the flexibility she has over her life, there's still a lot that she's figuring out right now.

KR 29:45 In the half a year or so that I've been a professional potter, I've worked really hard and been hard on my body, and now I'm doing things like PT for ways that I've been hard on my body, right? So I'm still kind of learning how to moderate and kind of explore what's reasonable for me, what's actually realistic. You know, what I have in my mind for what I want to create with my business may be writing checks my body can't cash. So I think my job right now is to be kind to myself and to be responsive to what my actual needs are as opposed to what needs I think I'm allowed to have.

SWB 30:27 What do you feel like you're still untangling from your tech career?

KR 30:31 I am still untangling the trauma of betrayal. So I'm able to recognize now that what I experienced was a betrayal of trauma. I was dependent on someone to meet my needs. I was dependent on a company or my bosses. I expressed my needs, and they did not meet them. And they harmed me. I think a lot of the processing that I'm doing lately is actually not even around my own understanding of the betrayal, it's kind of understanding the social context of the betrayal. 

31:08 I've been reading a really good book called Blind to Betrayal by Dr. Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell. And they talk about how it's hard for everybody to see betrayal. You can't outsmart this. Brains want to not see betrayal because betrayal is very destabilizing. It risks your security and safety in a lot of situations. And I was ultimately able to move outside of the situation where I was dependent on my job by becoming dependent on my partner, which is not a great choice, but I was able to change my dependency in this world. And that allowed me to see the betrayal. But the people who betrayed me have not replaced their dependency on Apple, right? 

31:58 They are trying to stay in the good graces of the company that they depend on for both their current living costs and, like I said, you know, if they want to start companies, or buy houses, or whatever, right, all of what's tied up in their golden handcuffs. So betrayers remain unaware of betrayals that they're committing. And observers also need to stay unaware. There was a lot of social fallout to leaving my team. You know, the guys I had worked with became really afraid to talk to me, you know, when they knew that I was in a federal investigation into Apple's pay practices. They started worrying about, "What does it mean to affiliate with Kate," right? So I wasn't just cut off from my career, I was cut off from people. And I'm at peace with like, "Okay, those weren't your people." But yeah, I'm still really trying to untangle my understanding of how everybody acts around betrayal. 

SWB 32:56 Okay, so I remember learning about institutional betrayal a couple of years ago, and it is such a helpful concept, especially right now, where I know so many people who are burned out and struggling. And there are countless reasons to be burned out right now. But I think one that's not talked about enough is this sense of betrayal that so many folks have felt over the past two years—betrayal by companies who said they'd support their people through the pandemic, but instead just, like, push them harder and harder. Betrayal from a government that has been inconsistent at best handling this crisis. 

33:33 There's just been so many feelings of betrayal that people have had from the institutions that are meant to support us. And so even if you haven't experienced a specific traumatic incident like Kate, I would definitely recommend checking out Jennifer Freyd's work on institutional betrayal. 

33:48 Okay, so back to Kate. So I asked her: now that she's gained all this distance from her experience, now that she's learned about betrayal, and focused on healing, and founded Equal Clay, what advice would she give to someone who's still in the thick of it, someone who's maybe being paid unfairly or experiencing other kinds of bias, or inequity, or microaggressions at work? Here's what she said:

KR 34:10 My advice is know that what you're thinking and feeling is true, even if you're not getting validation from anyone else, from anywhere else. And then secondly, when you start to know that something is true, it doesn't necessarily line up with like, "Okay, well, I'm in a safe enough place to make the changes that I know I need to make," right? So then the next step would be, "Okay, I know I need to leave my job. How do I get in a safe enough place that I could make that change?" For me, I didn't want to become dependent on a man again after being in a marriage and a divorce that was all super harmful for my financial situation. That was the last thing I wanted. And I kind of had to build up my bravery to make that choice again. So yeah, it may not look like any of the goals that you've ever had for yourself, but get creative and open to possibilities that you weren't considering before. 

SWB 35:03 And what Kate found is that when she opened herself up to new possibilities, like the possibility of being a potter, surprising things happened.

KR 35:11 I think I'm surprised at just how readily other people accept me as an artist. People have reached out out of the blue to say, "Hey, can I get a commission from you? I'd really love to gift something to a friend." Or when I opened my shop in December, I put ten mugs up for sale, like, kind of with a lot of fear and trepidation. And they all sold within two days, right? And now I have demand for the next shop update that's coming. If I was willing to see myself as an artist, other people are there with me, right? Like, they're just following along to the narrative that I put out into the world. And if they see me making art, they're like, "Kate makes art." 

35:50 I think part of why that's surprising to me is because I had done tech for a lot of years, and I didn't have the sense that people were like, "Oh, Kate makes tech," right? They're like, "Oh, Kate's a woman who is probably pretty junior and hasn't lived up to getting to be a kind of person that we consider as a person who makes tech." But I am not getting that from being an artist. People are just like, "Wow, what you make is lovely, and I want it."

SWB 36:18 This might sound like a small thing, but it's actually huge. Because this is the validation, the affirmation, the recognition, the recognition that she belongs, that Kate had been missing for so long. And now she's getting it. But Kate also wants you to know something else:

KR 36:35 You know, listening to me now, two years later, I probably sound pretty calm about it. And I just want to say there's been a lot of crying. I've been in therapy for the full two years, and I still cry about it. Today, like this week, I've already cried about it. I will cry about it again. I struggle a lot with rumination. I struggle with trying to fall asleep at night, and my partner falls asleep, and I start to hear him snoring. And then in my brain, I will start replaying conversations with bosses at Apple that my brain is somehow trying to get those conversations to end differently. 

37:15 I have skills now, and I'm building more skills to replace those thoughts. Once I become aware that I'm ruminating, then I'll start thinking about a pot. And I'll start thinking like, how will I carve that pot? And I try to focus my brain on the things that I can make happen the next day, as opposed to going back to a past that I will never be able to change. But it's been a real struggle. I lost my career, and I still wrangle with it two years later. And I'm happy with where I am, and I believe I'm headed in the right direction. 

37:51 You know, I've started thinking about it almost like college. When I was a high school senior looking at four years of college, I didn't bat my eye and think like, "Oh, four years? Four years is too much time. It's gonna take you four years to get from here to being a French major, you know, who's taken eight classes?" And I think healing is like that, too. There's a lot of pressure to heal immediately, or just be over stuff, or whatever. But, like, what if getting your degree in being healed takes four years? It might.

SWB 38:27 How do you give yourself permission to still be in the thick of it?

KR 38:31 I'm not sure if I have any other choice at this point. You know, like, when you realize you're ruminating, or you realize you're crying, right, like, those things are just happening. I guess, when I see it, I'm able to accept it now. You know, when I was working at Apple and I was dealing with hard things, I had no choice but to push through it and, like, try to get through my day, and be productive, and make sure the docs are going to be published in time for dubdub. So I guess I've written myself this permission slip of that hurt you. So now, if you're going through something hard, what if the most responsible thing, the most productive thing you can do is to give yourself time, right? Is to rest.

SWB 39:16 So that's Kate Rotondo, a small batch ceramicist and a person who's still healing. If you liked hearing Kate's story today, stay tuned for our final episode of this season all about pandemic clarity, where I'll be sharing some of my own story. And yikes, I'm pretty nervous about that one.  

39:36 Till then I'm your host, Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Strong Feelings is a production of Active Voice. You can check us out at and you can get all the past episodes, show notes, and full transcripts for every episode of strong feelings at This episode was recorded in South Philadelphia and produced by Emily Duncan. Thank you to Kate Rotondo for sharing her story today and to Blowdryer for the use of our theme music "Deprogrammed." Go grab their album at Have feedback or show ideas for us? Reach out! We're at Till next time.