I was looking for a binder to stuff my research articles in, when I got the idea for this post. Although this instinctive binder-to-women connection is a hat-tip to Romney—and probably the only thing I’ll remember him for—this topic has so deeply percolated into rhetoric and our daily lives, that it keeps ticking in all of us, on some level, regardless of gender. It evokes responses in magnitude and passion, probably second only to religion.
I write this at a time when there are studies showing how women are not only on the road to out-earning men, but also, ushering in matriarchy (I think Hanna Rosin took a holiday from logic on that one). The numbers, however aren’t nearly as rosy, with a wage gap range of 18-19 cents per dollar based on weekly earnings to the oft-cited 23 cents based on annual wages. This has spiderwebbed into—of all things—a sense of hair splitting paranoia about discrimination against women.
I am a feminist, and I believe that women should get equal rights and opportunities, and shouldn’t be discriminated against. And, yes, there are very few things I believe in with a fiery passion than that we should get paid equally for equal work. But, what I don’t believe—and this took some ratiocination to come to terms with—is that it can be forced. It is common opinion that legislating ‘leveling the playing field’ reforms would alleviate the problem. I disagree. Providing equal opportunities for women to compete with men in the market is poles apart from having government mandated policies that force employers to treat women differently in a feeble attempt to compensate for the parochial past. It is in the very nature of affirmative action to subvert free-will and, further drive a wedge between the classes it is meant to homogenize.
But, the problem we face is impending, and relying purely on the vagaries of the market isn’t going to snap the gap either. So, what do we do?
I think we should begin by examining if active discrimination is a major contributor to this gap—and if so—take measures other than crippling an employer’s choice, to negate it. There have been studies showing that discrimination does not have as much skin in the game, as touted to be. Rather, this bloated perception of discrimination probably pushes the more logical, facile reasons under the rug. Like sexist stereotyping—for example—which is often wrongly confused with discrimination. While stereotyping is involuntary, and due to years of socialization, discrimination is more actively controlled. That is not to say that we shouldn’t or cannot repair our instinct to stereotype; just that it is a slower process. And, it sure as hell will not vanish at the sight of force. For the discrimination that goes on, we need to take actions by making selection processes gender-neutral wherever amenable. Case in point: I work in the field of biomedical research, wherein a crucial source of income is federally funded grants. Grant application is one process that is perfectly suited for gender-neutral screening, à la the gender-blind music auditions which proved to be quite a game-changer.
Next comes the market forces. One would think that the differences in pay between business schools and liberal arts ought to be market-driven, but some cry the gender bias foul play in this too. Nothing could be further from the truth. The market has been and will always function on the edict of demand and supply. However PC you make it sound, the demand for a degree in liberal arts is insignificant when compared to say, finance. The fallacious attribution to gender bias could simply be because more men have gravitated towards such high paying jobs, as, traditionally they have had to bring in the doubloons. That is not to say that women aren’t driven to the high-paying jobs or men, to the arts, or even that women aren’t equally contributing to the coffers today. It simply means that the market rewards only those who supply what it needs, how it needs, at the lowest possible price. The way the scene is set now favors paying women less than men because women often trade in flexible work hours and perks for the dough. In short, as long as they can afford to pay women lesser, employers are going to pay them exactly so.
There are two ways to shift this equilibrium and it’s entirely in our hands: offer to work for less, so that eventually men are forced to lower their demand to compete with you, or, move the other direction—demand more. We might be turned down a lot more due to the historical market value and the hiring inertia of employers in the face of sexual harassment and pregnancy related liabilities, but it will happen eventually. If enough women aren’t willing to settle, and are of value to the business, only a rookie or a total jackass would lose them to his competitor. I believe there are measures we could take to make this happen. Women are known to take a beating when it comes to negotiating salaries—this could be changed by hiring a neutral negotiator; someone who evens the disadvantage or prejudice on part of the employer. Not only would this ensure women get a better deal, but shall also set the whole equilibrium-shift in motion. Furthermore, women could start companies of their own and make sure they pay men and women equally. Heck, they could even pay women more, to make a point, if they can afford it! It makes much more sense virally promoting such women and their products, than tether them to some mandated sum of money they must get paid.
This way, once the employers are free to reward ability, at least the ones worth working for wouldn’t make the mistake of losing a valuable employee, and are more likely to accommodate their needs. It is important to remember that people’s notions do not change by coercion; they change when given the freedom to do so.
So, yes, the glass ceiling needs to be broken. But, not by holding a gun up to it.