Friday, June 30, 2017

Taking down a bad argument about the gender pay gap

“If the gender pay gap was real, why wouldn’t companies just hire women instead of men? They’d save a fortune!” 

This is a line I hear a lot from MRA and “devil’s advocates” types, when cornered with hard data showing the disparity in pay between male and female employees performing the same job. It’s not logical, their argument goes, that companies would spend more to keep men on than women, therefore companies can't be paying men more than women - and so the data must be wrong.

The data is not wrong, but their logic is deeply flawed. It doesn’t take into account three significant factors – sexist perceptions of competence, availability of female candidates, and the fact that this is actually happening in some fields. 

No matter how greedy a company, if they believe men can get the job done and women can’t, they’re going to keep hiring men as long as they need the job done. And the fact is, there are many people – men and women – who have internalized this kind of thinking. 

To be clear, that’s not to say that everyone who correlates competency with a specific gender is necessarily doing so deliberately or out of sexist motives. I know that is not the case. The fact is that kids in the United States are raised, from infancy on, to think that boys grow up to be scientists, engineers, soldiers and badasses; and women grow up to be mom, Barbie and/or a princess. That’s bound to wear off, and it doesn’t mean someone who has unconsciously internalized that nonsense is “bad” for doing so. Indeed, it’s impossible not to internalize it without recognizing and consciously fighting it. 

Understanding where such thinking springs from doesn’t negate its existence, though. And unfortunately there are many professions out there that are still associated largely or entirely with masculinity.

Speaking personally, I’ve worked in IT for almost a decade now. Nine times out of ten, unless I specifically list my job duties, it’s assumed that I’m in a support role when I mention that fact. I’m a programmer with extensive voice engineer experience. I can write code in most modern programming languages, I can build websites and applications, I can work with SQL and Oracle databases, I can build ICM scripts and CVP applications, and I’ve developed tools that serve thousands of people; but people don’t assume these technical proficiencies when they hear I’m in IT. They assume I document what the programmers write, or work in a help desk setting. (This almost never happens to my male friends – and to those it does, it’s usually those deemed less traditionally “masculine”; on the other hand, I've often heard this complaint from my female friends in IT). Again, that doesn’t mean the folks making that assumption are being jerks when they do it; it’s just something ingrained in many people that women in IT support what men build. Men develop, women help; men build, women support. 

I’m happy to help dispel these misconceptions, but I am also realistic – it’s going to take awhile before this nonsense dies the death it deserves. And in that interim, this thinking will continue to impact the IT world.

But there’s a second point, closely related to this one. Even if people weren’t going to make assumptions of competency based on gender, in some fields there just aren’t enough female applicants to displace the male ones. Again, IT is a good example of this. I can’t count the times I’ve been the only woman in a meeting of IT professionals, or, back when I was in school, the only woman in class. Even if all hiring managers were smart enough (many of them are, many are not) to figure out that we women are just as competent as our male peers, there wouldn’t be enough women available to replace men in some fields. (Again, not to get swept up in tangents, but I would argue that this goes back to the first point – too many girls internalize the cheerleader/genius female/male dichotomy society presents to pursue those career options, and too many men internalize it and are in turn hostile to women encroaching on what they believe to be “their” spaces). 

Finally, and perhaps most damaging to their case, when the first two conditions I mention are satisfied (women are considered competent enough for the field, and there are sufficient numbers of female applicants) this is literally already happening. Look at “female dominated fields” like teaching and nursing. Consider that, now that women are considered competent enough to participate in these fields, we consistently see two things happening. First, we see pay and benefits evaporating. Second, we often see the institution itself attacked – to take teaching as example, educators are constantly belittled in modern discourse, and the field treated as if it's nothing more than glorified babysitting. It’s more than a coincidence that a respectable career path that used to pay a good living complete with solid benefits, is denigrated and subjected to ever increasing cuts by (largely male) politicians and administrators as soon as women dominate the field. It is literally what the MRA’s suggest isn’t happening, in action. Women are paid and valued less -- and when women outnumber men in the field, the field itself is assumed to require less competency, less talent, less brainpower and less work than when men dominated the field.

The fact is, the pay gap is real. It is harmful to women. It’s harmful to families. It’s harmful to society at large, and individually to men as well – both because it drives down the wages of their spouses and daughters, but also because it impacts entire fields of work. And it’s only going to get worse, for both men and women, as women continue to work – unless we stop trying to look for reasons to ignore the problem, deny the problem, and blame women for the problem, and just fix the damned problem.

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