PIcture of a woman with an empty purst

Yes, Virginia, there is a wage gap

Empty purseLast week, BNet, a CBS-run business website, ran an article by Penelope Trunk entitled “A Salary Gap Between Men and Women? Oh Please.” The article suggests that Trunk doesn’t really understand, or doesn’t want to think very hard, about how inequality and discrimination function in the workplace.

Trunk takes on the widely acknowledged reality that there is a salary or wage gap between men and women – the idea that when you control for qualifications, age, education, experience, and hours worked, women, on average, are paid less than men for doing exactly the same jobs. While the size of the gap is up for debate, that it exists is simply not up for discussion.  The wage gap exists. Case closed.

Trunk asserts that the recently announced White House push to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act is “ridiculous” because “it’s already illegal to pay people based on gender criteria.” This is true. It is already illegal to pay people based on gender criteria. It has been illegal to pay people based on gender criteria since the passage of the Equal Pay act in 1963. And yet, the wage gap exists today, in 2010. The Equal Pay Act did not, and has not, fixed the problem. So to push for better enforcement of the pre-existing law, or passage of a new, more comprehensive law, is not “ridiculous.” It is long overdue. By about, oh, forty-seven years.

Moving on, Trunk argues that the wage gap no longer affects young women, who she says out-earn their male counterparts in large cities. This may be true, but what about young women who don’t work in large cities? And what about older women, since women now work into their late fifties and early sixties, sometimes even later? Eh, who cares about older women?

Baby boomers: please do not distract us with your bitching about your lives. We don’t care. We are dealing with our own lives now, and we do not want to dedicate ourselves to solving your wage problems. Social security, urban sprawl, and the swelling debt are enough, thank you very much.”

Yeah, screw you, Mom and Aunt Nancy! You might have spent your entire working lives fighting to open doors for me and my cousins, but you don’t deserve to earn the same as your male counterparts! Because you’re old! Or something! For heavens’ sake, even if young women out-earn young men in large cities, there’s evidence that a wage gap develops and widens as they get older, sometimes just a year out of college. So even those lucky young, urban women will be at a disadvantage a few years down the road. And yet, Trunk claims that “women today do not face wage discrimination. We have solved the problem.” Yeah, right.

Trunk does concede that there’s one demographic group that really is affected by the wage gap: highly educated women, specifically those with MBAs from elite universities. But, she says (and apologies for the long blockquote, but you really need to read it to get the full sense of how willful this ignorance is):

The reason top-tier female MBAs make less then [sic] the men is because of the choice they make, not because of any gender bias. Women chose to stay at home with their children. They tend to work fewer hours per week, and they move in an out of the workforce more frequently then men do.

Even among those not so lucky to have a Harvard MBA, the salary gap is by choice: The Christian Science Monitor reported that 86% of women who left the workforce or downshifted did so because the workplace does not accommodate parenting.  Men, of course, have the same problem – they are parents also – but they do not make that choice. That the workforce is not good for parenting just is not a gender issue.

Got that? The fact that workplaces do not accommodate the needs of members of the gender that is more likely to take primary responsibility for parenting is not a gender issue. And the fact that women are more likely to leave the workplace to raise children is in no way related to the fact that the workplace does not accommodate parenting. That’s a “choice” that women make. They could stay on the job and take paid maternity leave, but they choose not to! Oh, what’s that? The vast majority of American companies don’t have paid maternity leave, because our government doesn’t make it compulsory? Well, women still “choose” to take time off to take care of kids! Never mind that in some states, childcare costs more than college, making it financially prohibitive for women, even if they work, to pay someone else to take care of their kids.

Someone needs to sit Trunk down and explain to her how structural inequality works. The “choice” to leave the workforce because your company is inflexible and unsympathetic to parents, doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, and because you earn less than your husband (as, statistically speaking, you are likely to do) and childcare is damn expensive is not a freely made choice. It is the best possible decision to make under a set of highly constrained circumstances. To do anything else would make little fiscal sense. Personal, individual “choices” need to be examined in the context in which they are made. And when that context is a system that is set up to constrain the behavior of a certain group of people and guarantee their continued inequality, we call that structural inequality.

Another example of structural inequality: Trunk advises women who are concerned about the wage gap to,

Stop looking paranoid. The world is not out to get you. Men are not against you. In fact, all the women I know who have top-tier careers are most thankful to the men, rather than the women, who helped them get there. Instead of focusing on the bad apples, find the men who respect women, and prove yourself to them.

Do you know why the women who have top-tier careers are most thankful to the men who get them there? Because you get further with a male sponsor or mentor than with a woman sponsor or mentor. Because individual men are more likely than women to be able to recommend you for a promotion than individual women. Because individual men are more likely to have that kind of power than individual women. They’re more likely to know about job openings, because they’re more likely to be included in information sharing networks or insider-y conversations that take place in non-work settings, like a golf course or a bar, from which your woman sponsor might be excluded. See that? It’s structural. Similarly, if older women don’t make the most supportive mentors, or sometimes even seem to shoot younger women down, it’s because those older women have worked their asses off to get where they are – to a level of business where there are very few women allowed, and competition between women is often cutthroat. This is how structural inequality works.

As if that weren’t enough, here’s another golden piece of advice that ignores the reality of women’s experiences on the job:

Don’t pretend to be a guy at work. Don’t dress like a guy by wearing boring suits. Show some cleavage – yup, you read that right – because guys like working with women they are attracted to. And show some leg because it’s fun – legs are the easiest thing to flaunt and the last thing to go. Women who dress like women move up the ladder faster because men think those women are smarter.

Sure, show some cleavage. As long as you’re willing to run the risk of being taken less seriously. Dress in a way that makes you appear attractive, but be aware that it might get you fired. When it comes to dressing for work, women walk an impossible tightrope: appear unattractive, and people won’t pay attention to you. Too attractive and people might not take you seriously – after all, women can’t be both sexy and smart. Clothing choices, especially in male-dominated corporate environments, carry a great deal of weight. Dressing like a man, a symbol of the desire to act or lead “like a man,” can mean that a woman will be respected, but not liked. Dressing, acting or leading “like a woman” can mean the inverse. It’s often a no-win situation, a case of structural inequality that can’t simply be boiled down to “show some skin.”

In summary, the gender wage gap exists. It exists for complex, structural reasons that can’t be resolved without collective action, legislative pressure and cultural change. And if you’re going to write about something as complicated as the wage gap in America, something that has such an enormous impacts on individuals, on families, and on our culture and economy, do your bloody homework.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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