Income Inequality — Myth vs. Reality

Much has been written, discussed, and debated recently with regard to the so-called “gender pay gap,” also known as “income inequality” in the USA and elsewhere. While I can’t speak for other countries, I can share my experience and insights regarding working in America. Enter with an open mind, or save yourself some time and go read something else.

Minimum Wage Does Not Discriminate

If you are just starting out, re-entering the workforce, or simply don’t have any specific skills or abilities to prompt a higher hourly wage, you will likely be paid the minimum wage. It doesn’t matter if you are male, female, old, young, Hispanic, black, white, or any other distinction — the minimum wage is just that. Everyone gets the same wage rate per hour of work performed.

The only way that a difference in income could possibly come into play in a minimum wage job is if you work fewer vs. more hours. So, if you are available and willing to work 40 hours per week, you will be compensated for 40 hours at the standard rate. Simple math, right?

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Here is where “statistics” can start to distort reality. Let’s say you are a young man, and come into work for 40 hours a week, week after week. Now, let’s say you are a young woman. You work your 40 hours, until you get pregnant and have to take three months off to have your baby. At the end of the year, the woman will make 75% of what the man made. That is assuming no paid leave.

Continuing on through the years ahead, up until the child is at least 16 and able to drive, the woman is far more likely than the man to take time off to care for the child. Hence, she will work fewer hours, resulting in a perfectly proportionate reduction in pay. Also, she will not be available for “extracurricular activities,” and may miss meetings and other work-related events because of her child.

I can hear you now: The man should be equally responsible in taking time off to care for the child. To which I respond: get a grip. Perhaps in some future time, when we have all “progressed” to the point that men and woman have equal responsibilities in raising children (beyond the obvious first nine months of gestation), this will be the case. However, right now, in the reality where most of us live, it simply does not exist. Women will continue to be the ones who stay home with a sick child, leave early to take a child to the doctor, and so forth and so on. It’s partly biological (e.g., nursing), and partly socio-cultural. But it is what it is.

The Story of Dick and Jane

Taking care of young children has additional implications in the workplace. For purposes of illustration, let’s look at the story of two people: Dick and Jane. They both graduate from High School, with relatively similar GPAs, and start immediately in the workforce at minimum wage jobs. They both get $10 per hour. They both earn exactly the same paycheck.

Then Jane gets pregnant. Not by Dick, by the way. She married John Doe in a lovely ceremony, but I digress. Jane has a fairly uneventful pregnancy, and is only late five times for morning sickness. She has most of her prenatal doctor’s appointments after work, but does need to leave early only three times for pregnancy-related tests. She starts her maternity leave when she is eight months pregnant, and returns six weeks after the child is born (a little baby boy named Harry, if you must know). So she only missed two and a half months of work to have her son.

Jane is extremely fortunate, and she finds childcare for her infant son. Unfortunately, every time Harry has a fever, or needs to go to the doctor, Jane must miss work. But only eight times in the first year. Also, she never works weekends or holidays, so that she can spend quality time with her son. And so it continues, year after year, until Harry is old enough to care for himself.

But What About Dick?

During this time, Dick has not missed any work. Zero. Zip. Nada. After one year, he earns two weeks of vacation. He takes one week, and banks the second week. He uses this vacation time whenever he needs to take care of personal business, which he carefully plans around the business calendar. Unlike a child’s fever, you can plan things like Dentist appointments well in advance.

Dick never misses a staff meeting (usually called first thing in the morning), and he plays in the company bowling league, where his co-workers get to know him personally as well as professionally. Dick signs up for extra company-sponsored training, which he completes on his own time. (Meanwhile, Jane is tending to Harry). He is well liked and reliable.

When the first available promotion comes up, both Dick and Jane apply for the position. Amazingly, Dick gets the job. The first of many promotions that Dicks gets, and Jane misses. Human Resources “suspects” gender bias, but investigates and finds no wrong-doing. By the time Harry goes to Elementary School, Dick is making 20% more money than Jane.

Now the question: is this unfair? You decide.

My Story

I started work, right out of college. My entry-level position was in a union-represented clerical job, and I made exactly what a male would make in the same position, doing the same work. I took off three days to get married, but otherwise didn’t miss a single day during the first year of my employment. After that, I scheduled and used my paid time off to do whatever I needed to do. It was my good fortune to have relatively decent health, and I was rarely off work due to illness.

Due to my college degree, I was considered for the “ready for management” program. I went through the process, which included testing and a few other steps, and successfully landed my first management job after four years of employment.

Since I did not have children, that was never a consideration for me. I worked; while I watched my “fellow” female colleagues arrive late, take off early, and spend way more time on the phone during business hours to conduct “baby” business. I kept my head down, and worked. I was always available to work extra hours, where my co-workers went to baseball games and attended school plays. I received promotion after promotion. Even one “two level” promotion, which was very rare. I used the company’s educational assistance program to earn a Master’s Degree in Management. I achieved three professional certifications in my field, much of which was accomplished “on my own time.” I wrote for trade publications, and gave presentations at professional conferences. I was respected by some, envied by others, and disparaged by still others. I learned to choose my friends carefully.

What Could Have Been

I might have risen in the ranks even higher than I did, if I had done the whole “lean in” thing. Along the way, I turned down at least one promotion that I recall, because the commute was just a little more than I could cope with. I also refused to work more than nine hours a day (ten or more hours a day was “expected” for salaried employees such as myself). I was into “work-life” balance before it became a “thing.” These decisions definitely hurt my chances of further promotions. I also lost “political” clout by not sucking up to the right people.

After nearly 30 years of continuous service, I was making a six figure income with annual incentive bonuses on top of that. Suffice it to say, my income was equal to or greater than many of my male colleagues. If I had made different choices along the way, I could very well have risen to the Vice Presidential level. I don’t say this to brag. I say this to make a point: women who are willing to work “like men” do, have the same opportunities. At this in the point in history anyway. Granted, before WWII, this was not the case. But we’ve come a long way, Baby.

The Bottom Line

So, what do I tell people when they ask me about “income inequality?” Mainly, I listen. And try to determine if they have an open mind, or if their mind is already made up. In which case, I don’t try to confuse them with facts.

But that’s just my opinion. I would be wrong.

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