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Posts Tagged ‘gender pay gap’

The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we’d sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.

Funny, my friend said, but true.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift:  When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it’s not always you that needs fixing.  Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.

In other words: Ain’t me, babe.  It’s you.

If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here’s a taste of what Altstadt had to say:

 … it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt … questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems-mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be? …. Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?

If you read women’s magazine, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.

Hit the like button.  As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel.  But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?

Indeed.  We’re led to believe that if we’re not happy, if we’re less than content, there’s something wrong with us.  But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix?  When we’re unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad — pick one — it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we’re struggling with the second shift, when we’re overworked and underpaid, when we’re striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we’re relentlessly undecided, maybe it’s not us that needs help — it’s the system.

The structures themselves.  Cue the sociologist.

And yet, we’re led to believe that if we would  just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.

All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:

According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time:  workplace massage chairs.  Free sessions with a work-life coach.  Oatmeal-raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office.  All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won’t notice that we’re overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we’re still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy‘s buck?  To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?

To keep us thinking that if it’s happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?

Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack.  Anyway, she writes that she’s tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out.  Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she’d rather do is change it.

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Bryce Covert’s recent post on The Nation’s website got me thinking today. It’s about an Accenture survey of Gen Y working women which found that

-they have the most positive outlook for women in the workplace of any other generation.

And yet:

-when it comes to their careers, they’re less likely to proactively manage their career or ask for a raise than their male counterparts.

Further:

-they feel underpaid,

-and have found that their careers take a bigger hit than their male counterparts’ once they become parents.

Whew. That’s one hell of a disconnect, wouldn’t you say? While I’m generally an unrepentant optimist, the type to blow sunshine up even the crankiest of derrieres until I get a smile, a study like this makes me question my approach. A positive attitude is well and good, but, when young women declare themselves optimistic about women in the workplace in the very same survey in which they point out gender-based inequities, you kinda gotta worry. Sunshine is good; complacency, not so much.

The trouble is the message we women have been fed: that feminism’s work is over; the battle won. That’s where that sense of optimism comes in, I’d argue. I myself went to an all-girls high school, not too (too too) terribly long ago, and spent my four plaid-skirted years surrounded by the enthusiastic and inspiring message that girls could do anything boys could do. Which is good, of course–because it’s true. Save for peeing one’s name in the snow.

But there’s a little bit of trouble with that approach. One: that you enter the real world largely unprepared for the injustices you will, (yes, I said WILL) come up against as a woman. And two: that when you do come up against them, you will assume they have only to do with you. That the situation–your lesser paycheck; your unwillingness to “proactively manage your career or ask for a raise” for fear of bias or judgment; your employer’s subtly shifting opportunities away once you’ve become a mom or the discrimination you’ll face if you don’t have kids–and the fact that your male counterpart in either of those scenarios will likely be rewarded, seen as either a dependable family man or a guy who has the time to devote to his job, where you’ll be perceived a flight risk or cold and odd, respectively; the realization that if you want a killer career and your husband wants a killer career and you want kids you’re in for a daily struggle that may well lead to one of you “opting” out; that if, against these formidable odds, you do make it to the very top, you will find yourself wildly outnumbered–is merely your problem. That it is personal, and not political. When, of course, it is exactly that. It is collective and it is political–and change happens when we’re willing to see it that way.

Don’t get me wrong: We have come a long way (baby). Think about this: when my mom graduated from college, it was still totally legal for employment want-ads to be segregated by gender. A company could list a managerial job in the men’s want-ads, a secretarial one in the women’s. This was not the dark ages; this was the 1970s.  So clearly we’ve come a tremendous way since disco inferno.

But the fact that we’ve come so far does not mean that our work here is finished. The fact that we have much to be grateful for in no way precludes the many things we should be angry about. Take that pay gap, for example:

U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do… Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar.

April 17 of this year is Equal Pay Day. Don’t let the delightful sounding name fool ya, though: that’s the day that a woman’s salary catches up to a man’s… from last year. For doing the same job. Another way to look at that is like this: taken as a whole, from January through April 17, women are working for free.

So, clearly, we still have a hell of a way to go.

Or, I suppose, maybe I should rephrase: the world still has a hell of a way to go.

But who is going to be responsible for steering it in the right direction?

It occurs to me that perhaps these young women are right in their optimism–or here’s my Pollyanna side’s spin, anyway:  for centuries, men’s roles have not changed. Whether buffalo or bacon, they were to bring it home. They were the hunters. They were to provide.

Women, on the other hand, have always adapted–whether when acting the gatherers, surveying the environment to see what it had in store and shifting the game plan accordingly, or to a male-dominated workplace in which we nevertheless were able to ascend, bit by bit, to the point where we are today. We had to fight for the right to wear pants, for craps sake. Now, how many pairs of jeans are in your closet? Change is in our DNA. The office, corporate culture, political institutions — these things aren’t going to change themselves.

The angry part of me and the Pollyanna part come together in the faith that these women will eventually get angry on their own behalf: and once that happens, they’ll see the rest of us, and they’ll join us. And then we’ll do what we’ve always done. We’ll change things. A little anger will help. And so will a little optimism.

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According to a new report out of Sweden, the answer may be no.

Sigh. Can’t you just hear the backlash? The ugly comparisons to the odious Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame?  The rousing chorus of “I told you so”?

Sorry, folks, but we don’t buy it. What we think this report speaks to is not what women may be doing wrong — but to the roadblocks,  both culturally and structurally, that still stand in our way.

The study, from the Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) and the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies (UCLS) at Uppsala University, suggests that women managers are no more likely to eradicate the wage gap as their male counterparts, nor are they likely to hire more women.  According to Science Daily:

…economist Lena Hensvik found no support for the claim that female managers entail any benefit for women in connection with wage setting. The study encompassed all of the public sector workplaces and a representative selection of private sector workplaces in Sweden during the years 1996-2008.

“At the first stage, I found that women with female managers receive higher salaries,” she says. “But when I went further and considered individuals who had had both male and female managers and how salary varies with manager gender, I found no significant difference between working for a woman and working for a man. Any differences appear to be tied to the individuals, not their managers.”

… But do women employ more women? Lena Hensvik asserts that there is no evidence that they do.

Let us be the first to say that we don’t buy the conclusion that the study necessarily shows that women in high places don’t benefit the rest of us.  Or that we can’t count on women leaders to mentor us in the way that, well, Larry Summers mentored Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Or that a woman boss is no more than a man in a skirt. (or, ahem, shoulder pads)  It’s a complicated issue that has much more nuance than the numbers might show: we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and the world has yet to catch up.  All of us — men included — are still stuck in a working world designed by and for men, and though women now make up close to half the workforce, structures, society, and policies have not made the shift. All of which leaves us in something of a pickle that goes beyond a series of stats.

To help figure it out, we talked to communication scholar Laura Ellingson, director of Women & Gender Studies at Santa Clara University.  She says it’s all about the questions that are not asked as opposed to the ones that are.  Bingo. That’s a conclusion we will buy.

When it comes to the wage gap, Ellingson points out, it’s been well-documented that men and women negotiate differently when it comes to salary.  “That is, men tend to negotiate once they receive an offer, while women tend to accept what they are offered. Hence, even when made identical offers for the same job, men tend to begin at a somewhat higher salary, a gap which widens over time. One might say that women should simply negotiate, but this is a very problematic piece of advice, since women who do negotiate are perceived quite negatively by managers if they use the same type of tactics that men use.”

It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”

What’s more, Ellingson says, when it comes to hiring decisions, female managers are still operating in a workplace skewed toward masculine interests, masculine styles of communication, and masculine goals, so the idea that they would naturally hire more women per se, is a ridiculous assumption. “So I guess I just don’t grant the premise of [Lena Hensvik's report] in asking that question. Here’s what I would ask instead: what types of pressures are subtly communicated to female managers — by subordinates and supervisors — that are not communicated to male managers? Change the question, change the answer.”

Something else to consider: the cultural differences between Sweden and, certainly, the U.S.  (Not to mention the pay gap itself.  It’s on average 8 percent in Sweden; 20 percent here.) For insight, we turned to intercultural communication professor Charlotta Kratz, a native Swede who has been teaching in California universities since the 1990s. She says those differences are not to be underestimated.  According to Kratz, the experience of being a woman is of public interest in her country, which has led to a number of gender-equalizing structures throughout Swedish society. When we asked her about this particular report, she told us: “I would guess that the reason that there isn’t a bigger female ‘effect’ in Sweden is that the whole system is more female oriented. Swedish society is far more sensitive to gender issues in general compared to the U.S., meaning that Swedish men make different choices than American men.”  In other words, she says, there would be less of a difference between men and women in Sweden than there would be here in the U.S.

All of which brings us back to that issue of asking the right question.  Or, as feminist icon Gloria Steinem once said: “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”  It’s not a question of whether our lady bosses have our backs — but whether the workplace itself is receptive to change.

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