Standing on the chips on the shoulders of female giants

A friend recently asked me in response to a previous post: “what do ovaries have to do with orders”?  This, right around International Women’s Day, made me think of the gender wage gap, an issue brought up often and passionately, and one that does not have a single simple cause or solution.

I don’t consider myself a feminist, especially considering how loaded the term is.  I have been part of the workforce for a decade, starting with my first job out of college as an insurance underwriter, for which I was paid significantly less than a male colleague in the same position who had also just graduated [apparently this is still happening, even after factoring in that women tend to start at lower paying jobs].  But many women who have been in the workforce for even longer have seen progress in the treatment of women and are trailblazers in several ways.  One rather disheartening obstacle to wage parity is what is referred to in this piece as a “Queen Bee” mentality, where senior women sabotage other women in order to maintain their own hard-won status, perhaps resenting the relative ease with which others have risen or just as a way to reinforce their own “specialness.”  Also, while gender is [thankfully] a protected class, some women will misuse that as a crutch or threat, which is damaging to women overall.  Others are quick to play the sexism card while simultaneously plying their sexuality by flirting or dressing provocatively in the office.  I am not “blaming the victim” — I just think you can either ask to be judged on merit or on the basis of your gender/sexuality, but not both.  And while the choice is ultimately up to the female in question, I think it’s more damaging in the long run.  One of my friends who works in post-production makes a conscious decision to only wear pants to work as she thinks wearing dresses or skirts will feminize her to the detriment of her work [she is also doing a reverse sexism experiment whereby she calls hot young male interns superhero names like “Thor” and “Clark Kent”].  Likewise, I don’t wear anything tight or revealing to the office, and I am sorely tempted to give some unsolicited advice to one of the admins who wears leggings and a stretchy tee to work daily, or another who pairs tight tops and pants with 4-inch heels.

While it is becoming more common to see stay-at-home dads, the primary caregiver is still usually female.  I have a few female friends who took themselves out of their chosen career path because their priorities simply changed once they had children, and they realized they wanted to stay home or work part-time.  There is no fault in this, but women changing the trajectory of their earning power and plateauing or dipping can certainly have an overall affect on the wage gap, which should be acknowledged.  In order to prevent this from happening, should companies make hours for parents more flexible so they are free to work part-time or fewer hours daily?  If the worker in question is so efficient she can finish all her work in her allotted time, bully for her.  But if mothers are instead working few hours and putting more load on their co-workers to pick up the slack, it only makes sense that the company adjust their pay commensurately.  Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, has been taking tremendous flack for scrapping the company’s flexible telecommuting policy, particularly from women who have somehow taken this as a personal affront to working mothers.  It remains to be seen if no longer working from home will improve Yahoo’s performance, but Mayer was hired to be CEO, to improve the company’s performance, not to cater to working mothers’ needs.  As another friend wrote me recently: “we’re supposed to turn the world into a fluffy ball of fuzzy happiness after we compete our way to the top? the competitive urge is all totally a fake-out to get there and then…soften up?”

In a futuristic robot society, the workplace could be a straightforward meritocracy.  But all our interactions professionally and socially [for now] are still very human.  While there may not be as much overt bias, we all are guilty of making assumptions about the other people around us.    Subconscious bias and the tendency of men to network with other men affects the assignment of projects, committees or advisory boards, as well as partner and board nominations.  Men may also not even realize they are taking these actions themselves or witnessing those of others, so they may believe their workplace is truly meritocratic and women are being overly sensitive.  These are factors beyond women’s control, but there are some that are not:

  • Don’t be a stereotypical insecure, crazy, manipulative, back-stabbing bitch.  It’s the least you can do.
  • Don’t be a stereotypical vapid, frivolous consumer of gossip and fashion who is uninterested in technology, math and science.
  • Don’t read Us Weekly [at a recent roundtable discussion at the NYSE, several women from varying backgrounds and industries specifically cited Us Weekly as something they wish they didn’t spend so much time reading, yet seemed irresistibly drawn to].  Although, I suppose it’s better than People.
  • Don’t waste time and money on extensive [and expensive] wardrobes, frequent hair appointments and manicures.  Men can roll into work wearing slacks and a shirt, so women should be able to look presentable with minimal time and effort as well.  If it takes more than 10 minutes to do hair and makeup in the morning, you’re doing it wrong.  Also, stop wearing heels, full stop.  Wear flats instead, which are still professional, more comfortable and far less damaging to your body.  The idea of what a well-dressed woman should look like has been marketed to us and our superiors, and we merely perpetuate these expectations by catering to them.
  • Don’t demand equal pay for unequal work. Accept that if you make the choice to work less, you should be paid less.
  • Don’t wait for your company to teach you new skills.  Keep challenging yourself and find ways to add value.
  • Advocate for yourself [when you can], not just do great work and wait for accolades.  Women, for the most part, want to succeed on merit — they might not want to play politics, but the game is unavoidable.  So draw attention to your progress and accomplishments and use them in salary negotiations, as men do.
  • Find a mentor [male or female] who can advise and guide you, and maybe even advocate for you when you recognize you are not in a position to do so yourself.
  • Be a mentor, particularly to other women seeking [or who should be seeking] guidance.  Identify career goals and encourage them to behave, dress and work in a way that will get them taken seriously so they can achieve them.
  • Network.  Most women are more timid than men when it comes to making new relationships and essentially asking the favor of being linked to their extended network.  There is no shame or harm in asking.
  • Appreciate the progressive men who are sensitive to conscious and subconscious biases against women — these guys are still a somewhat rare breed.

Additional reading…

On the persistent gender wage gap: Felix Salmon [Reuters]

On board membership: Forbes; Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

On gender stereotypes in science:  Academy of Management Journal

On the effect getting married later has on women’s earnings: The Atlantic

Former Lehman CFO, Erin Callan, on balance: NY Times, NY Times Dealbook

Get involved…

Girls Who Code has developed a new model for computer science education, pairing intensive instruction in robotics, web design, and mobile development with high-touch mentorship led by the industry’s top female developers and entrepreneurs.

High Water Women empowers women and youth in need by creating powerful volunteer opportunities that leverage the talents and aspirations of professional women.

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