I was at a networking event when a man asked me, "Whose wife are you?" 😱

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This may come as a surprise, but I never considered myself a feminist until recently. I thought feminists were man-hating women who didn't shave their armpits. I was influenced by the idea of "femininazis" (originally coined by Rush Limbaugh in the '90's), and actively distanced myself from these women. Gloria Steinem was no hero of mine. 

Things changed in 2016. 

I was at Cannes Lions, the advertising festival in the South of France. It is a one-week booze fest, where execs schmooze on yachts, drinking rose and champagne.  I had unfettered access to the top dogs at major companies, and I was on a mission to find clients. I was thrilled to be there. 

At the festival, men greatly outnumber women since, after all, they tend to be the top dogs. So it was no surprise that at the first party I went to, it was a sea of men. I struck up a conversation with one of them, an older gentlemen.  A few minutes into small talk, he asked: "Whose wife are you?" I was stunned.

That first night at Cannes set the tone for the week which was exhausting, disappointing, and gross. I'd be pitching my business when someone would interject, "You're hot." At one point, Marilyn Manson strode up to our group and declared, "There are so many women here I want to fuck." All the men in the group laughed. 

It reminded me of all the times men would say sexist - and racist - things and we would nervously giggle. I'm ashamed that I never had the guts to speak up.

After I came home from Cannes, I got depressed. To channel my feelings, I wrote an essay about my experience and how to process it. I sent it to a friend who urged me to publish it.

Though I knew that my essay could help other women, I was scared. I was scared that I would be labeled a feminazi (thanks, Rush!) and that I might lose jobs because of it. I didn't want to make men uncomfortable. 

I decided not to publish it; instead, I gave permission to my friend to forward it to her network. And that's when the magic started. I began receiving email after email of women's stories, similar to mine. For many of us, we'd experienced uncomfortable gender dynamics at work (for years), but only recently were starting to realize it. The question of course became, what now? 

I began researching women in business and came across statistic after statistic that opened my eyes to the reality of women in the workplace. It was so much worse than I thought. I was raised to believe that my success would be limited only by how big I dreamed. The fight for equality was over. 

You can imagine by shock to discover that despite being the majority of today's college graduates, less than 22% of women make it past middle management. Only 4% make it to executive leadership.

I thought the wage gap was 78 cents to the dollar, but for Black and Hispanic women it was not. They were making 63-55 cents, respectively. 

I realized that I'd had a complete and utter misunderstanding of feminism. That I'd let men influence my support (or lack thereof), of other women. I finally could admit it: I was a feminist and I was ready to shout it from the rooftops.

I didn't started Ladies Get Paid because I wanted to. I started it because I had to.

Now go get paid.

EssaysClaire Wasserman