Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Wage Gap and Women's Choices

Some thoughts on the wage gap, women's chocies, and Clay Shirky's A Rant About Women, courtesy of my Feminist Jurisprudence class.

The term "women's choices", in the context of work decisions that lead to the wage gap, is loaded and does not sufficiently explain the complexity of those choices and their interaction with society. Yes, many women choose to take time off for childcare, to work more nurturing jobs, or to sacrifice a promotion in favor of maintaining flex time. These are choices. However, many of these choices may not be freely chosen, and it is worth examining why it is women who most often make these choices. Even if the differential is due to these choices, it is still unsatisfying. Society sends very clear messages from the time children are young that women are supposed to be the primary caregivers, and men are supposed to be the "head of the household". Even in very egalitarian families, the message still comes to children through media displays—commercials and kids shows are often still locked into an old fashioned understanding of who does what.

After that, when we hit high school and college and start learning more about the harsh realities of the working world it starts sinking in on a different level. The first time I heard about the glass ceiling and the wage gap, the very existence of those things made me wonder if I was setting myself up for a life of career disappointment. I had thought, in my naïveté, that those were concepts of my mother’s age—that I was growing up in some better time when men and women would actually be equal in the workforce. Sure, I couldn’t name many important female politicians—but I couldn’t name all that many important male ones either. I assumed the problem was entirely representative of my own lack of knowledge, rather than that there actually was a lack of women at higher levels. With that background, encountering the very idea of the wage gap was frustrating—I interpreted it as meaning that I’d have to work harder and longer than male colleagues to get the same level of respect. To some extent, I do think this is true. I also wonder, though, how much of the exodus of women from the workforce plays into the gap—and how much the gap plays into that exodus.
Going back to the issue of choice and leaving the working world—for many of us, it is a choice if one partner quits. But for others, it’s simply a matter of economics-- a woman quitting because childcare costs so much that staying in her job does not actually gain the family money.  Though it is her "choice" to quit, when she returns to the workforce, she will enter at a lower salary range, and never be able to catch up in making money.

Hers is just one kind of choice that will not really be free, and speaking of choice as if it is that simple—as if women simply don’t want to work, or want these jobs that pay less—distracts from the problem and is a nice balm to the conscious of everyone who does not want to think about the sexist elements of modern society. Many women want to stay working, but take time off because it is expected—or because her company has a maternity leave policy, but her partner's does not have a paternity leave policy. In addition, the expectation of later being responsible for childcare may lead many women into choosing less financially rewarding jobs in favor of jobs with more time flexibility, like teaching or nursing. No matter what decision a woman does come to regarding staying home, work, and career, that choice is a double bind. If she stays home, she loses wages-- now and in the future. If she goes back to work early and pursues her career in an aggressive manner, she is selfish, a "bad mother", a "brazen careerist". Indeed, I've seen criticisms of women that do lob these terms at them. Yet a man who works after his child is born, or who works long hours and spends little time with his cchildren0--- well, he's normal. Natural. Not a bad father, and not selfish. Men who stay home get judged-- because staying home is seen as emasculating them.

If women are truly voluntarily choosing to exit the workforce, a wage gap caused by that alone is perhaps something that would not need to be addressed. However, any element of the wage gap that comes from the selection of jobs that women do does need to be addressed. Traditionally “feminine” jobs are regarded as less important and less deserving than many traditionally masculine ones. Women used to be the secretaries, school teachers, nurses, and librarians, and men were the lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and engineers. There has, obviously, been a huge influx of men into “female” jobs and women into “male” jobs, but there is still mockery of male nurses, and still the assumption that if a man and a woman of similar ages are both representing the same organization, the man is the superior.

Teaching is one career that is, in the US, traditionally feminine and which is still dominated by women in the younger grades. To be a successful teacher, one has to have access to number of traits that are commonly more associated with women than men—one must be able to communicate clearly, being willing to explain and re-explain concepts; one must be nurturing to students who have personal or family problems; one must take with patience a lack of respect and attention from the class; and one must like youths. Even now that more men are becoming teachers, it still seems to be a female dominated profession—at least, before college. It is a nurturing profession, and one that I feel is not respected at least in part because it is a nurturing profession. I’ve seen a lot of people who dismiss teaching as something anyone can do, and who are willing to blame teachers for a host of problems that they are not really the cause of.

I do think that part of fixing the wage gap needs to come in the form of addressing these misperceptions. Putting more value on things that are traditionally “women’s work” may lead to better pay for those professions—and help close the wage gap. Granted, as certain jobs become better paid, they may become more attractive to men, and men may end up being preferred in hiring decisions—again, the perception that women will take time off for family matters and men will not comes into play. Society views women as more nurturing and less analytic, and does its best to present women with nurturing roles as their options.
I can think of no branch of feminism that is not opposed to the wage gap. Relational feminists like West are likely to agree with the stereotypical division of labor, but advocate that the pay for those positions is what needs to be altered--with, perhaps, teachers making more money and computer programmers making less, for example. I do think teachers should be paid more-- not because it is a mostly female profession-- but because teachers themselves are so important for ensuring that children grow up being able to think. I do think that traditional feminine pursuits should be admired in the same way that traditional male pursuits are, and that neither should be placed above the other. I do not think, though, that women ought to be encouraged to stick to careers like nurse or teacher because of some idea that women are inherently compassionate.

Formal equality feminists are likely to be displeased with both the wage gap itself and the disparate impact that maternity leaves end up having on hiring and promotion. Formal equality feminists have fought many battles for women through lawsuits with male plaintiffs. It seems that their strategy would be wonderfully imported in addressing the wage gap. Yes, maternity leave exists in large part so that women can recover physically-- giving birth and breastfeeding take a toll on the body-- but it also has roots in the perception of women as mothers first, workers second. If paternity leave is made to match maternity leave, and both become paid and for a predetermined mandatory length of time, fears about losing female productivity as a result of birth are likely to disappear. As to women choosing to quit work and become stay at home mothers, or choosing jobs that will give them more freedom and flexibility, these types of choices are not likely to bother formal equality feminists. It is the equality of opportunity and process that matters more than the actual result. Still, I think in the cases where the choice is not free and true, formal equality would judge the system and seek to reform it further.

Dominance theory feminists would likely see the wage gap as a confirmation of domination-- and as something to be rectified as quickly as possible. Men controlling women and putting them in a position of sexual submission would be reflected in the submissive nature of the jobs that are predominately women. Women who quit their work would be seen as victims of the patriarchy, being exactly what they are told to be. If women can not match the earnings of men, many women will still be dependant on male partners-- especially if they want to have children, and fear raising a child on their own income alone. As such, the wage gap can function as a tool to keep women in the sexual power of men, by making women dependant on male income. Those women who do consciously choose to stay home would be seen as victims of false consciousness, and as in denial of their own potential for a better career. Dominance theory feminists would likely want legislation enacted to ensure that women must be hired in numbers comparable to men, or rather, that the percent of female applicants hired is same as that of male applicants hired. This might still result in a wage gap-- but programs to further the education of women would also be championed by dominance feminists. My fear regarding them is that stereotypically "male" goals and jobs are valued, and stereotypically feminine pursuits are not-- and as someone who is stereotypically feminine in nearly all of my pursuits that aren't related to my career, the dominance feminists worry me in way similar to men that that believe women belong in the home. They feel that women belong working-- whereas I feel that neither men nor women belong anywhere except where they get personal fulfillment.

To the extent that women who are ambition enter the workforce and still end up making less than their male counterparts, I have to admit that Shirky has a point, though I prefer asking how can we change the institution to notice the effective women workers, rather than asking how we can change women to become more effective in the institution. Why is it always us who must change to adapt to the workings of men, and never they who must change to adapt to us? Yes, there are arguments that sexual harassment policies have forced men to change to meet the concerns of women-- but I can't get too upset about anyone being asked to behave with respect towards others. And what Shirky is asking is not that women behave with more respect-- but rather, that we behave more poorly, with more arrogance.

This is actually not the first time I've encountered Shirky's A Rant about Women. A few months ago, perhaps, reactions to it exploded across the feminist blogosphere. I even considered writing my own reaction to it as well-- except I felt, to some extent, that every possible reaction there could be had already been said, and written better than I could come up with. The topic, too, is hardly new-- back in 2008, the New York Times published and article called "Women, get this: don't ask, don't get", based on the book called "Women don't ask". I remember the article being emailed around and shared by a lot of my friends in law school, who were seeing themselves in it and realizing that there is a problem of proactivity in many of us. I do identify a lot with the women in Shirky's rant-- and I see those traits in many of my female friends, and it is incredibly frustrating. I have personally always had a lot of difficulty with being proactive when it involves other people-- whether it was asking for a favor or a question, or promoting myself. I've noticed many of my male friends also have difficulty asking for help, but that they don't have the same issues with self-promotion. The first time I really became away of the difference was in college, when a group of my friends and I were comparing our resumes. The two men in the group had been mainly truthful, but had also embellished some aspects of the breadth of their work experience. The three women-- myself included-- had modest and truthful resumes. If anything, we could have polished them to make ourselves seem even better-- but we didn't want to end up disappointing anyone who hired us. We all shied away from the self promotion—it seemed, and in many ways to me it still does seem, unethical.

Also, while Shirky’s advice seems good—and it’s something I definitely need to incorporate more of myself—there’s a line at which it makes me cringe in worry. Acting like a self-important jerk may well be what gets men ahead, and women can definitely benefit from being more forward and asking for more—but I don’t think we can get away with acting just like the prototypical career man. This also comes from the societal perception of women as nurturing—there’s a line we can go to in being aggressive, but when we cross it, we become a “bitch” and a “ball-buster”—just think of the novelty Hillary Rodham Clinton nutcrackers that were being sold around the election time. Women being more confident than most of us are now will surely help—but I think women can “get away” with less “bad” behavior than men do. Perhaps if more women do act in aggressive manners, women acting aggressive will eventually be accepted—but then there is an even larger problem for women who are not inclined to be aggressive, making them even more likely to be overlooked.

I don't really know whether it's nature or nurture making us less likely to self-promote for sure-- though I do think nurture plays the larger role. I also don't know that it matters whether it's nature or nurture causing it. In some ways, if the behavior is caused by nature and not nurture, the reaction is even worse—because if it’s nature, then it truly is society devaluing what women are—promotions structured to be responsive to male workers, but not female workers, even when each does the job equally well. Women that I know just seem to worry more than men do, which can also play into why we are less likely to ask—men may think the worst that could happen is that they’ll be told no, but a woman might think that the worst that could happen is that she’ll be passed over for later promotions, for being out of line and too cocksure. Indeed, in a society where employers do seem to still hold women and men to different standards, I can't help but think that there is a legitimate fear in worrying that asking for a raise will lead to worse assignments in the future.

I think the biggest thing society needs to do to help address pay equity is to restructure the way we think about gender roles and family, as well as the role that work plays in our society. We discussed n class the concepts of maternity leave and paternity leave, and why they exist, as well as the leave structures in other countries. I think that the current American system is part of the problem. Men and women are both discouraged from taking time off after a pregnancy, men more so than women. As such, when it comes to hiring or promoting, it is logical for a company to take the cold cynical route and pick a male candidate over a female one—in their eyes, he’ll be less likely to leave the company, and as such, less likely to cost them. Training employees takes time and money. However, if men are also given paternity leave, the incentive to hire men over women diminishes. Men and women are both given the message that good employees choose work over their family-- however, in Lester’s piece on paid family leave (at page 608), women given a longer maternity leave were more likely to return to their same company. In a situation where leave is paid and for a reasonable amount of time, a woman may well be able to choose her career and her family. If no leave, or too short of a leave, is offered, women may choose to quit work entirely for a few years so that they can have a time home-- if instead, a leave of several months becomes an option-- and a paid option-- women will be more likely to return to work. Likewise, if men are also given this several months leave, they will also be likely to return to their company-- but the family can have a true bonding time, with the father can play an important role in helping his wife recover from birth and being involved in his child's life.

Part of the change also does have to come on a smaller, more individual level. I am not at all blaming women who do not ask—I am, as I’ve said, one of them myself, in many ways. I do think that colleges and professional programs need more mentoring programs and career guidance, though, and I think that women can be better trained to be more aggressive in the workforce. As I said before, I am not discounting that a part of women's reticence in asking may come from nature-- but I do think that nurture plays a large part, and I do think that if it is from nature, nurture can play a large role in overcoming it. Teaching women how to successfully negotiate and telling them that it is acceptable to self promote is a positive thing--and self promoting can be difficult to do well. Many colleges, my undergrad included, do not offer career skills workshops-- as a result, since many industries are built with an expectation that the default employee will act like a default man, women can be incredibly competent at their jobs, but not realize how to get promoted or hired. Women need to be sent a message that being aggressive and confident is not a flaw-- and that it can actually lead them to success.

Ultimately, the change will come if we can abandon the separate spheres notion that has held on since the formation of the US. Even if the image of the 50s housewife is false-- since most poor women, especially women of color did have to work-- we are still stuck in a society that idealizes it. We must change society so that it views people as individuals first, rather than as a gender first. Unfortunately, the best hope for truly making these changes is to create artificial wombs. Until that happens, our own biology is seen by so many people as an inherent disability that does factor into employment decisions.

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