The women of Weight Watchers are in open revolt! No, they’re not overhauling the points system to a feelings-based eating plan that accommodates our daily bagel and beer requirement. It’s actually even better than that. Hundreds of employees (mostly female) who run the diet giant’s thousands of weekly meetings have taken to an internal company site — and the New York Times — to complain about their paltry pay.
Weight Watchers meeting leaders say the $18 base rate for running a two and a half hour meeting — which amounts to minimum wage — has not increased in more than a decade, and does not cover the hours preparing for or traveling to a meeting. Meeting leaders, who are themselves often Weight Watchers success stories, play an important role in the company’s business model, recruiting and retaining customers by being the best, most supportive friend $40 a month can buy. Adding insult to injury, the company continues to cut seven-figure checks to celebrities like Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Simpson (a woman who has clearly and understandably chosen pregnancy over dieting) — even as earnings decline. Last week, chief executive David Kirchoff, who made $2.96 million in 2011, wrote to employees promising to improve the way Weight Watchers “rewards” them.
Company spokeswoman Stacie Sherer dismissed employees’ accusations that low pay was the result of sexism, but their rebellion fits into a larger narrative about women’s work. Running Weight Watchers’ group-therapy-style meetings falls under the umbrella of “pink-collar jobs” — like teaching, nursing, and childcare — that are generally underpaid in America. As Breaking Out of the Pink-Collar Ghetto author Sharon H. Mastracci told the Times, “Caring work is undervalued, and they’re taking for granted that you care so much you’re going to be there no matter what.”
Some say “taking for granted”; others might call it “exploiting.” “Other than the financial problems, it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” one insurance industry SVP-turned-WW meeting leader, Teri Weatherby, told the Times, “That’s what they prey upon. It’s like an abusive relationship. You know you should leave, but you stay because you love it.”
It’s easy to argue that even if pink-collar labor struggles are a gendered issue, it won’t be one for long. There was just a big New York Times story about how, as construction and manufacturing jobs dry up, men are flocking to nursing, teaching, and caregiving professions. The Manny rises! Indeed, enough men have taken pink-collar jobs that we know that they still get paid more than their female counterparts to do them. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2011, the average female nurse earned $51,100, “16 percent less than the $60,700 earned by the average man in the same job.”
It’s unlikely that any such pay inequality would exist at Weight Watchers, if only because its meetings business is still overwhelmingly female. The company’s 2011 marketing push to attract men focused on Weight Watchers’ less touchy-feely elements, like its website and apps, Ad Age reported. But there remains one obvious disparity: “Men get higher point allowances under the Weight Watchers system, even if they are the same size and weight as their female counterparts.”