Below is an excerpt from Lean Out that explains why as a measure of gender equality, the wage gap is at best meaningless, and at worst, compromises the needs of very people it’s intended to serve. I feel so strongly about it because so much of our time, attention, and energy is spent on this one issue when there are far greater problems like poverty and reproductive rights, which affect a much larger number of the nation’s women.
In 2008, Linda Babcock came to Google and gave a talk about her book, Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want. I’d always been intrigued by the topic of gender, so I was excited for Babcock’s talk. In her lecture, she explained that due to our cultural conditioning, women don’t ask for what they want as often as men, and we pay a steep price for this timidity; our failure to negotiate is the primary driver of the country’s wage and gender gap. She closed with an overview of her four-part framework aimed at helping women speak up and ask for what we want.
I found her talk inspiring but wasn’t clear about a couple of things in her research. So, during the Q&A session, I stepped up to the mic with my question. I asked if women go for raises less often because they value other things more highly. I was curious whether the desire for flexibility or part-time work affected how often they ask for raises.
Babcock seemed to tighten up as I spoke. When I finished, she took a long, slow, exaggerated breath, as if she were trying to calm herself, so she could figure out how to answer the stupidest f*cking question she’d ever heard in her life. With a smirk, she finally said, “You’re asking me . . . if women don’t like money?”
This got a chuckle from the audience, which seemed to please Babcock. They all agreed I was an idiot. I wanted to crawl under the chair.
I replied into the mic: “Bitch, didn’t you just write a book encouraging women to ask shit? So why you gotta make me feel like an asshole?”
Oh wait, no. That’s what I said to her in my head that night as I replayed the scene for the hundredth time before falling asleep. In reality, I fumbled through a half apology, half clarification. “Sorry . . . no . . . I obviously know women like money. I was just wondering if women asked for other stuff more often? Like . . . maybe they’d rather forgo a raise in order to work from home or something.”
Babcock moved from public humiliation to outright dismissal.
“I’m not getting into a nature-versus-nurture debate right now, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Next question. Thank you.”
There’s a widespread misunderstanding about the gender pay gap in America. When President Obama declared that women earn “77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” it sounded as if he was saying that women are paid less than men for the same jobs. But the reason female wages are lower is that we choose professions that are less lucrative.
For example, women dominate teaching and nursing professions, while men dominate the finance and banking world. Once you adjust for the differences in hours worked, job experience, level, and choice of profession (e.g., teacher versus investment banker), the wage gap shrinks from 80 to 96 percent. In other words, it’s not that Company X pays their male managers more than they pay their female managers; rather, it’s that Company X has fewer female managers overall.
Money is a tool for achieving the larger goal of well-being, not the goal in and of itself. It is useful only to the extent that it helps us live out our desires and is spent in accordance with what we value as individuals. One woman may prefer more flexibility over a higher salary, while another may value material luxury over a part-time schedule. Comparing these two women, and by extension, comparing anyone, on the basis of income is meaningless; it tells you nothing about which one is more successful.
I’m not saying that women don’t like money. I’m not saying that it’s okay for men to earn more than women for the same exact job. My point is that comparing the total earnings of men and women, without consideration for the trade-offs it entails, isn’t just a meaningless indication of progress — it potentially threatens the interests of the very people it’s intended to serve by compromising what’s arguably far more important: their well-being.
If working longer hours or managing more people or playing more office politics reduces the quality of our lives in the long run, how can we call this a win? Because men have more than we do? More what? At some point, we have to ask ourselves: What exactly are we winning, and who are we winning against? The key point is this: solving the pay gap by measuring progress in dollars, can require many women to act against their own well-being, and that’s the opposite of empowerment and progress.
One must also wonder what men are being measured against. If we’re striving for an equal world, where women run half our companies and men run half our homes, why aren’t we measuring the time men are investing in household chores and child-rearing? There are no national campaigns funded by the White House encouraging men to work more flexible jobs, or to come home earlier so they can get dinner ready and help the kids with their homework.
Women earning more money isn’t the only way to close the wage gap. It can also be closed by men choosing more flexible jobs, so they can pitch in more at home. Or if they stayed home altogether to raise their children and run the household. And if they did go that route, it would give women more of the balance they desperately crave. But few, if any, people ever look at it from that angle, asking, “What do women need and want, and how do we measure progress against it?” Instead, people declare, “Men are in the ideal position in society, so we’ll measure ourselves against them.”