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Melanie Ho of Strategic Imagination: 5 Things We Need To Do To Close The Gender Wage Gap

Rectify the biases that lead male-dominated jobs to be paid more. One of the most frequent wrong-headed defenses of the wage gap is that it’s the result of women choosing to be in positions that are less demanding and therefore paid less. Like the “lean in” refrain, this is placing the blame on women. Actually, there is deep gender bias in what jobs are paid more than others, even when they require the same level of skill and experience. In the 1940s and 1950s, when most computer programmers were women, they received relatively low pay and prestige. The salaries for these jobs increased when men started doing these jobs.

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Ho.

Melanie Ho is the founder of Strategic Imagination, a firm dedicated to drawing on the power of the imaginative arts to drive transformational change. She believes that today’s wicked problems won’t be solved unless we find new ways of getting past trapped mindsets — and that the tools of fiction, theatre, and the visual arts can help pave the way. She was born and raised in Southern California and currently resides in Washington, DC.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

When Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In came out in 2013, I was in my early thirties and had just been promoted into a senior management role. I went from managing four people to over 70 almost overnight, and I was grappling with the challenges of being a young woman in that role, and also the barriers I was seeing for women on my team, which were different from what I was seeing for men on my team. At first, I was excited about Lean In. It’s got a powerful message, and Sandberg says very directly that the book is meant to be only one part of the conversation on gender equity. But my excitement turned to disappointment and anger. Organizational leaders were looking for a “quick fix” to their gender gaps, and they’d found one. It’s a lot easier to put the blame on young women by telling them to “lean in,” rather than look at the larger set of systemic and cultural barriers. The term started to become almost a cliché. I talked to a lot of women in a similar spot in their careers, in different industries, and heard the same stories. Anytime any kind of gender gap issue was raised, the answer was always, this will be solved if women lean in.

The real problems are more complicated, but we live in a world that’s about soundbites and simplifying things as much as possible. I was doing a ton of research on the challenges beyond leaning in, and I wanted to write about them. But I puzzled over how to portray the complexity of the problem in a way that would be digestible for busy readers. Before my career in business and consulting, I received my PhD in English and taught literature, and I’d spent a lot of time thinking about how novels can open our minds to new perspectives and help us make sense of a complicated world, while also entertaining us. That led me to start writing Beyond Leaning In as a novel.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Any conversations with early readers of Beyond Leaning In have been fascinating, because each person is able to make the book their own, identifying with characters or finding meaning in scenes in ways I anticipated! As I writer, I tried to be purposeful about how much backstory I gave to each character, so that readers could more easily put themselves in a lot of different shoes. But I hadn’t expected the range of “offstage” information (histories, futures, etc.) that folks invented for characters while reading the book. People will say things to me like, “This character was thinking X at this point,” and I’ll think: wow, that really opens up a lot of new directions.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was first dabbling in fiction as a freshman in college, I remember a professor telling me to stop writing every single character as if they were me. They might all look different and have completely different lives, but I wrote as if they all thought either exactly like me (or sometimes, if they were a villain, the exact opposite). People are much more complicated than this, and I started reading a lot of psychology to better understand how people process information in totally different ways. A good lesson outside of creative writing too!

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2020, women still earn about 81 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

First, professions that skew male are paid more than professions that skew female, even when they require the same level of skills and education. Second, women face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” when it comes to negotiation. We are blamed for not being as assertive as men in pushing for salaries and raises, and yet thought of negatively when we do. And third, even in the same positions, women and men are not given equivalent opportunities, and we are evaluated, rewarded, and penalized according to different standards.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

My work focuses most on that third point. The wage gap won’t be solved until we grapple with the full range of ways, many of them hidden, that women and men have very different experiences at work. For example, men tend to get promoted based on potential (what’s called the “bet with” phenomenon), whereas women have to it again and again. People whisper about such things behind closed doors, but these delicate and emotionally-charged topics are hard to get out in the open. My hope is that Beyond Leaning In provides a way for individuals and organizations to start having those difficult conversations.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Rectify the biases that lead male-dominated jobs to be paid more. One of the most frequent wrong-headed defenses of the wage gap is that it’s the result of women choosing to be in positions that are less demanding and therefore paid less. Like the “lean in” refrain, this is placing the blame on women. Actually, there is deep gender bias in what jobs are paid more than others, even when they require the same level of skill and experience. In the 1940s and 1950s, when most computer programmers were women, they received relatively low pay and prestige. The salaries for these jobs increased when men started doing these jobs.
  2. Address the “fatherhood bonus” vs. “motherhood penalty” in workplaces. There’s a lot we need to do related to supporting working parents, such as around paid child care, leave policies, how men and women share responsibilities, and more. One issue that impacts the wage gap is what’s called the “fatherhood bonus” vs. the “motherhood penalty.” Where women who are parents can face all sorts of biases in the workplace because they’re seen as less committed, it can help men: they are seen as more dependable and even deserving of more money as breadwinners. Having PTA involvement on a resume has very different implications for a woman compared to a man.
  3. Hold organizations accountable for a more expansive set of diversity metrics. We’re beginning to see some governments and the public holding companies accountable on representation; for example, do they have any women or people of color on the board? But that’s really only the first step. Representation is only helpful to a point if women and other historically disadvantaged groups aren’t treated equitably in those jobs, in ways that can really impact equal pay. What do promotion rates look like? Is there not only salary parity at different levels, but parity as far as what expectations are for those jobs? In order to evaluate their business success, companies track ridiculous numbers of indicators. Not just big things like sales, but they look at all kinds of metrics down to who clicked on what specific email links that they assume will eventually lead to an impact on the bottom line. We need to start holding organizations accountable to use that same kind of rigor and thoughtfulness when it comes to diversity metrics.
  4. Recognize that the compensation gap isn’t just about equal pay — it’s also about equal penalty. Salary, or how we’re rewarded for good work, is hard enough to talk about. We’re even worse at talking about what we do when employees are not meeting expectations, but unequal penalty is just as important. For example, there’s a scene in my book where you see a man and a woman reacting to a new policy they don’t like in a meeting. The man explodes, slams his laptop shut, and storms out of the room. The woman says something a bit brusque. The discussion afterward about the woman is, “She can’t control her temper; it’ll really limit her career.” For the man, even though he behaved in a far worse manner, it’s “He can’t control his temper. But he’s a good guy, nobody’s perfect.” These kinds of different standards can have two problems. First, women who make mistakes aren’t given the chance to learn and grow that men get. Second, too many excuses can be made for men who aren’t a good fit for their jobs and probably shouldn’t be in them.
  5. Understand the broader range of systemic and cultural bias that that lead to inequity in opportunity and recognition. What I’m getting at more broadly here is that the pay gap conversation can’t just be about pay. Pay is only one part of how organizations recognize the contributions of their employees. Anytime men and women are praised differently (“Chad is great with data.” “Haley has an infectious smile”) or assigned different kinds of tasks (i.e., women always being asked to take the notes in meetings), we are valuing the time and talents of men vs. women differently.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

At the beginning of Beyond Leaning In, I tell the reader that the book might make them feel sad, angry, frustrated, defensive, or other emotions. As a business leader and as a consultant to organizational leaders, one thing I’ve been most struck by is how much individuals and organizations suffer because nobody knows how to deal with their emotions at work. This isn’t just on topics like diversity. For example, I’ve watched discussions of future business strategy where leaders struggle because some kind of emotion is getting in the way: maybe grief over an old business strategy they loved but now have to replace, or fear about having to learn new skills. They think they’re having a rational discussion, but actually emotion has overtaken their logic without them having a clue that’s happened. So if I could inspire a movement, it’d be that people could talk about feelings at work. Masculine corporate culture is suspicious of emotion, assuming that making room for it will lead to bad decisions not founded in reason. Actually, the opposite is true. The emotion is there whether you like it or not. The bad decisions come when you don’t acknowledge the emotions and therefore let them unwittingly control you.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love every life lesson quote that’s about focusing on the journey, rather than the destination. It’s too easy in our busy world to get obsessed with outcomes — are we where we think we’re supposed to be? Are we getting there fast enough? We get sucked into that vortex. A few years ago, I went on a weeklong silent meditation retreat and it really changed how I thought, allowed me to realize the benefits of being in the now.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I love all her shows, but I’m especially obsessed with Shonda Rhimes’ book Year of Yes, about overcoming fears and really clarifying for yourself who you are. I read it when it came out five or six years ago, but thought about it a lot as I quit my day job a few months into the pandemic to finish writing Beyond Leaning In. I’ve really tried to take her lessons to heart in saying “yes” to things that scare me or are unfamiliar. And I love how she talks about how she had to learn how to be a “gladiator,” not just for others, but also for herself.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.



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