For Starbucks leader, 100% gender pay equity is just a start

By Jennifer Warnick

Sara Bowen swung her tiny fists wildly, pummeling the homemade punching bag hanging from a tree in her back yard.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The 6-year-old paused to let her older sister, Anna, take a swipe.


Born 17 months apart, the sisters shared a lot of things: a bedroom, an elementary school, and the targeted cruelty of classmates for looking different than nearly everyone else in their predominantly white northeast Wisconsin town.

At first the sisters, who also share the Asian features of their beloved Chinese mother, were bewildered when they started school and classmates pushed them down on the playground or spit vile, racist slurs at them. Then, they got angry. Looking for a way to cope with the hurt, the little girls decided to fill a paper grocery sack with crumpled newspaper, tie it to a tree branch in the yard and punch it.

Sisters Joy, Anna and Sara Bowen hold a picture of their mother, Barbara Chen-Ling Liang

They spent hours in their makeshift boxing gym, and when their kicks and jabs eventually obliterated the paper punching bag, they made another one and punched some more. They took turns swinging at it until they felt better, then went inside the house, where their parents would comfort them and remind them they are valuable and loved, and that this problem would pass.

“I always knew I was loved. I just also had these jarring moments of ‘wait a moment, the world isn’t right,’” said Bowen, now 43. “Our story is far from unique, and it’s far less dramatic than many. We were aware from a very young age about the different ways people experience life. We were aware of our own differences. And yet, we were also aware that our differences made us strong. Even then, I had a sense these barriers were temporary – that this was not going to be the rest of my life.”

Each painful experience, and each punch she threw in her back yard, landed a budding resolve to someday do something about what was wrong in the world. She would find a way to punch bigger, and stronger and more skillfully, not only for herself, but also for others.

On a recent morning, Bowen sat at a conference table near her desk in Seattle and recounted the early days that propelled her to where she is now, working as the director of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) team at Starbucks.  The team is devoted to identifying barriers to progress and creating programs that lead to systemic change.

Bowen’s team was instrumental in helping the company achieve last month’s milestone of 100 percent pay equity for partners of all genders and races performing similar work across the United States. When making the announcement, Starbucks also shared a host of tools and best practices for preventing disparities to help other companies reach pay equity.

“This team of mine is so incredible. They work so hard, and all of them are on this team because of their commitment and their conviction, not just to pay equity, but to all gaps – retention, advancement, accessibility, and more,” Bowen said. “We're all about identifying where the barriers exist and breaking them down so everyone has a chance at empowerment.”

Though the 100 percent pay equity number is an exciting one to Bowen, the heart of her team’s work on pay equity lies not in a single number or moment, but in building the muscles needed to maintain it. The company can be at 100 percent one day but lose ground when hiring even one male high-level executive who comes in at a higher salary than a female counterpart. This is why her team deals heavily in data, spreadsheets and comprehensive analytics. They not only diagnose what’s happening, but design tools to make sure Starbucks doesn’t accidentally perpetuate any pay gaps going forward.

Bowen, who has worked at Starbucks for nearly eight years, knows true corporate change isn’t found in writing big checks to solve problems, creating dramatic moments or making grand gestures, but rather in steady persistence. It happens one spreadsheet and one conversation at a time.

“I don't think I quite realized the potential when I came here,” Bowen said. “For one thing, we employ hundreds of thousands of people. Even if all we did was make things right and fair and equitable for those people, it would be satisfying. But what's even greater than that is that we can lead. We announced our pay equity commitment. If we can help inspire others to do the same, and hold each other accountable, we can stop (pay inequality). We can literally change the world. It sounds lofty, but I really believe it.”

The dazzling Wisconsinite and the fake book club

Relentless resolve is part of Bowen’s core. It lives within her very DNA, passed down from her mother, a Chinese immigrant who taught her to hold her head high no matter what was happening, and that no problem was too big to be solved.

“She lived through all kinds of stuff, but never considered herself a victim. No matter what obstacles happened, they truly were opportunities for her,” Bowen said. “Mom always saw the good in people. Her instinct was to love. She was so tough, and yet so funny. She had such a great sense of humor about all the crazy things life threw at her and all the things that happened to her.”

Bowen’s mother, Chen-Ling Liang, fled communist China with her brother and parents in 1957 and landed in the United States as a young teenager. She was thrust into public high school in the suburbs of Detroit, Mich., despite speaking no English.

“This was before the days of ESL classes or interpreters. To her, it was a wash of noise,” Bowen said. “One day, out of the cacophony, she heard someone say, ‘Will you pass me a pencil?’ and she understood. It was a huge opening for her, and she started to figure it out.”

No one at school could pronounce their names, so the siblings took American ones: Barbara and Alexander. Their father, a mechanical engineer named Po-Lung Liang, worked at Ford. No one there could really pronounce his name, either, though that didn’t slow him down. He spent his entire career at Ford and generated a long list of patents for his inventions, including his design for the overdrive feature still used today that saves fuel and wear by allowing cars to maintain higher speeds using fewer engine revolutions per minute.

Barbara Chen-Ling Liang taught herself English, earned two degrees in biology, and went on to teach biology, anatomy and physiology to nursing students. She met her husband, Max Bowen, at the University of Michigan, and the couple had three daughters – Joy, Anna and Sara – which brings us back to the house in northeast Wisconsin with the frustrated girls and their homemade boxing gym.

Sara Bowen, 2, ice skates with her mother, Barbara, on the lake behind their house in Minnesota. The family later moved to Wisconsin

There is hoping things will change, and then there is changing things. By high school, Bowen had started to realize the difference between the two.

“I joined the mock trial team, and we competed nationally. For me, it was this welling up, this realization that I could find a wrong, and as a lawyer, actually have the skills to right it. I didn’t have to stand by,” Bowen said.

She got really into labor economics while earning her undergraduate degree at Northwestern University, but decided to stick with law (at Starbucks, she now gets to do both).

After graduating from Stanford Law School, Bowen traveled to Alaska for a year-long clerkship with Dana Fabe, the first woman ever appointed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

“Sara was dazzling, even as a law clerk fresh out of law school,” Fabe said by phone from Anchorage last week. “I’m so impressed by the work she’s doing seeking equality for women in the workplace and yes, I saw it coming, because she does everything with grace. She’s analytical, incisive and a critical thinker, but she’s also a light and joyous person. That combination makes her really effective. She knows how to pick her battles and she isn’t easily distracted by the unimportant.”

Working for Fabe, who later became the court’s first female chief justice, was formative for the 25-year-old Bowen, and the judge became one of the most important role models of her life. The women remain friends to this day.

“She was the best mentor and teacher I ever had – smart, thoughtful, kind, creative,” Bowen said. “She was a pioneer. She was working at a time and in a place that was not always the friendliest to women, and she let nothing stop her. She achieved so much. Paving the way isn’t easy, but when you have that kind of conviction, there’s really no other path than the one you’re creating.”

By 2001, Bowen had moved from Anchorage to Seattle to work as a labor and employment attorney at a law firm. Whether she was at Stanford, clerking in Alaska, or working in Seattle, Bowen and her mother talked on the phone or emailed every single day.

“Just short notes – usually just cracking each other up,” she said.

In Seattle, Bowen was living with her sister, Anna, and another roommate, who at the time had gone on a few dates with a guy named Bill Radke. The roommate decided Radke would be a better match for Bowen instead.

The roommate manufactured a one-time, fake book club meeting as an excuse for Bowen and Radke to meet, and her instincts were correct. Bowen and Radke have now been together for 17 years, married for 13, and have three children – Susanna, 11, and twins Ginger and Alex, 7.

“She regifted me, much to the happiness of everyone involved,” quipped Radke, who hosts two radio talk shows on KUOW, a Seattle National Public Radio affiliate.

“To me, Sara was the most interesting person in the room,” Radke said. “She was the funniest one in the room. She was the most pointed one in the room. She’s got all the burners going, it’s great. Not everybody would think of Sara as some sort of outsider, but part of the reason I fell for her is her ability to not be complacent. To say, ‘How else could this be done? How could this be better?’ She’s always had a strong sense of right and wrong.”

The change agents

sara bowenSara Bowen leads a meeting of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) team at Starbucks

On a recent Tuesday morning, Bowen and three members of the Starbucks IDEA team sat around a small conference room table making plans to change the world. After having announced that Starbucks had reached 100 percent pay equity in the United States, they now were planning the path to get to 100 percent gender pay equity around the globe.

“Our team is a team of change agents,” Bowen said. “We get to look at a lot of data about our partners – how we move partners, how we hire them, how we develop them, how we pay them, how we advance their careers – and it's our job to identify where there might be barriers in those processes, Once we identify those barriers, then we get to design solutions to address those barriers.”

In the midst of righting wrongs worldwide, they were also squabbling, playfully, about what font to use on their pay equity PowerPoint presentation. There was a Calibri camp, and a Century Gothic camp, but all agreed that no font should be smaller than 12 points.

“Font equality,” Bowen joked.

Bowen’s team is full of nicknames – Ace, Pearl, Mamalee, Sassy Dan, The Kid – and they all call her “Coach.”

“She's really engaging and playful and funny, and at the same time, she is serious about the work and getting results,” Marthalee Galeota, a member of Bowen’s team who manages accessibility efforts at Starbucks. “It's this magical combination of having somebody who cares about you as a person, who is compassionate, who wants to move the work forward, and who can speak so clearly about it to help people understand the value of what we do. We call it our dream team because we all love working with each other and working with her.”

Galeota said the team occasionally goes out for drinks, and Bowen does this thing with new people where she asks them to draw four things on a napkin: a house, a tree, a body of water and a snake.

“People are drawing these things, and wondering what in the world, and then she takes the napkin and explains the ways each drawing reflects that person’s soul,” Galeota said. “She is making all of this up, and she does it with a straight face, and everybody is cracking up, but a lot of times she’s also right, because she knows people and she’s such a quick study.”

Bowen was working in Starbucks legal department on the employment law team last year when she had a bold idea. She pitched Lucy Helm, chief partner officer at Starbucks who was previously Bowen’s boss as general counsel, on the idea of bringing the company’s inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility experts together onto one team. Helm told Bowen it was a great idea, and she ought to lead the team herself.

“I think she took a chance and a risk to say, ‘I'm going to create a new team, and to go somewhere where I haven't gone before,’” Helm said. “She is one of those people who is not only willing to have the vision, but to help execute it. She has all the things a lawyer brings to the table – expertise, skills, knowledge, judgment – married with a deep and personal commitment and an idealism about what the world should look like. When you put those two together, it makes for a very effective leader.”

It’s no small job to unravel decades of systemic gender bias and maintain equality, but Bowen is excited about each incremental change she sees. Starbucks has been working toward pay equity for about a decade. Today, more and more companies are working to achieve pay equity and are partnering with organizations for help and support. Businesses and leaders are making cultural and behavioral changes, and job- and promotion-seekers are learning strategies to earn what they deserve. Starbucks has come up with a list of principles to help other companies close the pay gap and is also eager to learn from others, Bowen said.

One best practice: Starbucks has stopped asking job seekers for their salary history to avoid “importing” pay inequality. If all companies stopped asking candidates for prior pay, and instead paid them based on their experience, skills, and a consistent range for each given job, it could make a huge difference, Bowen said.

Keep shoveling

In 2006, Bowen accompanied her mother on a trip to Rome, Italy, where her mother was awarded the Pirelli Award for outstanding communication of scientific and technological culture on the web. In 2009, after 22 years of teaching community college, Bowen’s mother was enjoying retirement, extra time with her children and grandchildren and swimming two miles a day, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died two years later, at age 66.

“I think what’s been hardest is navigating motherhood, my career and my aspirations without my mom.  She gave me a lot of strength,” Bowen said. “My mom was a really brilliant person. She was smarter than anyone I’ve known, but people didn't know that about her because she was so humble and funny and warm, resilient and loving, and I think people don't associate genius with those qualities, which is maybe partly why a lot of women feel like they've been held back. My mom was everything I wanted to be and still do.”

The path to achieving universal, worldwide gender equality is long – longer, perhaps, than a single lifetime. For a lawyer, team leader, wife and mother of three, hellbent on making a big difference– it can be hard to maintain balance and stay centered.

“I’m not sure that I do,” Bowen said, laughing. “Did you see my hair this morning? Mess! And I’ve given up trying to pretend I have an organized home. I tell guests, finally without shame or embarrassment, that my priorities are my work and my family, not the cleanliness of my house or the quality of the food I serve. I try to compensate for it by being more present, and less distracted by the lint balls and chipped plates when I welcome friends and neighbors into my home.”

She tries to exercise religiously, including jogging and early morning boot camp on the rooftop of the Starbucks parking garage. She reads before bedtime, and often drives the 30 minutes between work and home in complete silence. She sometimes feels guilty not being home with her kids more. When she works long hours, she explains to her children what she’s been working on and why.

When things get hard, or she’s feeling low, she takes out a photo of her children to remind her of the future she’s working for, or she wears a necklace with her mother’s picture to remind her, just as her mom always told her, that obstacles are opportunities in disguise.

It would be a far more finite task to manage inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility within the proverbial four walls of Starbucks. Yet working to eradicate systematic, worldwide gender inequality can feel like “shoveling snow in a snowstorm,” Bowen said. But because she is her mother’s daughter Bowen keeps shoveling.

“We’re there in the elements, working hard, picking up all the snow, but you can't stop it because it's coming at you from every direction and it's blowing around,” Bowen said. “I think we do have more people with shovels now. That helps. And I’m not sure how this works from a meteorological standpoint, but it seems like the more people we have out there shoveling, the snow is backing off. It’s almost like the clouds can sense they’re not going to be able to create a blizzard anymore, so they lay off a little. As we get better at this systemically – within Starbucks, across the United States, across the globe and as people – there will be less of this to solve for. That's what's really exciting.” 


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