Gender and Pay Equality is Not a Threat. And yet…

Whenever I think about gender and pay equality, I think of my highly intelligent mother who was never treated fairly in any workplace that she ever worked in outside of a family business. And even when she decided to determine her own destiny, by creating her own business, JoSi and Sons, I saw people try to cheat her out of fully paying her for the work she did for them and devalue her contributions. There were so many nights with no electricity and our water cut off even when my mom did more than enough work to keep us in the black. But, because of the social acceptability of devaluing the work of women, and Black women in particular, my mother and her three sons had to struggle more than what seemed our fair share given my mom’s level of education, intelligence, and work ethic. So, I’m going to just come out and admit that I am biased toward pay transparency and equal pay for all people. And yet…

For nearly my entire life, I have been an observer of culture. And in large and small ways, I have suffered under and benefited from cultural norms depending on the context. I have also witnessed how culture–because of its assumed validity–can stunt communal and societal progression and impress limits upon those who subscribe to its norms even when it is not in their or other’s best interest. In this post, I want to start a tough conversation about gender and pay equality in our culture and to challenge readers to confront how cultural norms, as much as, if not more than, individual corporate practices, contribute to the slow progression toward pay equality and other gender based factors in the workplace and beyond. Now let me say that I know that some of what I am going to say is provocative. So, if you’re provoked, that means I did my job.

I am a subscriber to Katica Roy’s, Brave Souls newsletter. In a recent article entitled, Gender Equity Isn’t A “Count The Women” Game, she addresses a question of men feeling as if they are being disadvantaged by organizations hiring and promoting women solely for diversity’s sake. I love conversations like this because they challenge us to think in a multidimensional way when looking at opportunities to maximize the potential of cultivating truly inclusive environments. She does a great job of navigating the question posed to her and invites her readers to take a broader perspective on the issue of what it means for an organization to be truly inclusive.

When I engaged a friend of mine who is an IT manager at a law firm in this conversation about gender and pay equality, she didn’t mince words when she pointed out that many of us men complain about the possibility that women may now have an unfair advantage because of diversity requirements. But somehow, many of us didn’t seem to care when we had an unfair advantage because of the boy’s club mentality. Of course, I couldn’t deny the validity of her statement. I have no doubt that my mom was more qualified than many of the men she competed with for roles. My entire family struggled because of this tendency. And add race on top of it, and there’s a lot there to breakthrough. And yet…

I kind of put my foot in it with her by saying that the larger issue is historic societal/cultural norms about gender roles than it is specific hiring managers or corporate practices. The fact is that without saying it out loud, I think there is a tendency to think that the man has to make more because there is still the assumption that men are the “head of the household” and that they have to provide for or will someday provide for a family. There is also the unspoken assumption that the spouse’s (imagined to be a wife) career is optional and not absolutely critical to the family’s survival. Believing this, whether we are conscious of it or not, there is going to be a tendency toward paying men more. When I explained this, my friend could see where I was coming from. But as a single mother herself, she was frustrated that so many of our structures are still built around this obsolete paradigm. And yet…

Of course not every organization is stuck in that old way of doing things. I was in the military for eight years. In the military, everyone basically gets the exact same pay based on their rank and years of service. There are some performance pay increases, such as for language ability. For example, I was paid more because of my level of language proficiency in Mandarin. There are other incentives as well, such as hazardous duty pay if you are in a dangerous situation. But for the most part, you have your base pay, Basic Allowance for Housing (dependent or no dependent rate), and a Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) if you live in a place overseas that is extra expensive. And for the most part, gender does not play into it in any way.

Now of course, not too many people would be excited about having the same kind of pay protocol instituted in private sector work environments. But, there’s something to be said for having pay transparency. If someone wanted to look up what a person was getting for the extra incentives, they can easily look it up. And when pay isn’t a factor, you’re more inclined to be distinguished by performance.  However, the fact remains that the pay structure for most roles in its original conception was based on a man taking care of “his family”. But more importantly, white men taking care of their families. That’s the foundation upon which the structure was built. But, when the military desegregated and let women enlist, they eventually got the same entitlements. (Though many non-white people were denied their veteran benefits for a long time.) And yet…

Eliminate zero-sum beliefs that impede progress toward gender equity. All genders benefit from creating more equitable workplaces. – Katica Roy

Many, if not most, hetero-normative white men grew up in a world where there was a reasonable expectation that they would be able to marry a woman and raise their children and buy a house, etc. It was the American Dream and the marketing was so great that everybody wanted it. But operating from a zero sum paradigm, it naturally feels like competition is robbery. And from an ego perspective, I can imagine gender equality feeling like a threat to some men because there are still many who buy into the historic gender roles. And why wouldn’t they? For countless years we’ve all been taught these roles. And despite the fact that most of us now know that families come in all forms, there are still a tremendous amount of social biases that we all struggle with no matter how liberated we think we are.

Once, when I was still in the military, a woman asked me out on a dinner date. I said yes not really thinking of it as a date date, but more of two people eating at the same time; in the same place; and at the same table. But when I tried to split the check she suggested that since I was the man, I should pay. The way I saw it, if anything, she should pay since she asked me out. Besides, since she and I were the same rank and had the same pay, I figured splitting the check wasn’t that big a deal anyway. We were fast approaching the 21st century. Hadn’t we gotten past some of these obsolete ideas of what roles people play based on their gender? Well, apparently not since that was our first and only “date”. But why?

Did I do something wrong for thinking that she should equally pay her portion of the check? Clearly, I did. I violated the cultural norm. Now of course, she could have celebrated being treated the same as I would have treated a man who asked me if I wanted to have dinner together. But, instead she told people I was cheap. LOL. But here’s the question. Who was at fault here? Me for breaking cultural and gender norms or her for trying to conform to them? Or neither of us? Is there a right answer? Do you see what we’re dealing with here? If not, here is another example.

Over the years, I have done an unofficial poll where I asked several women friends of mine who were single at the time of my asking if they would be in a relationship with a man who made considerably less than them and had no interest in making more money and was also content to let them be the primary source of income for the family. In nearly every instance, there was either a flat out rejection of that consideration, a hesitancy on their part, or a need for a number of considerations and justifications for why the man wasn’t trying to make more money and provide for the family. Many said that they knew that they shouldn’t care. But, they admitted to feeling weird about the idea that they would be in a better financial situation than their male partner.

And I can tell you personally, that after I got out of the military, I went through a period where I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the leap into a different career path and took on jobs that paid less but gave me the mental space to pivot. But, even though I made enough to pay my bills, my relationship suffered because my wife at the time made more money than I did. And, despite knowing my character, when I became single again, my female friends told me that they could see why a woman wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who made as little as I did in that season and was unclear on my next move. It also didn’t help that I was also turning down job offers from companies who wanted to hire me simply because of my top secret security clearance. From their perspective, as a man, I should have been trying to make as much money as possible to provide for my non-existent family.

Now some of you may be wondering where I am going with these examples. Well, I am basically trying to point out that cultural shifts that deviate from the zero sum paradigm and cultural norms, must be a collective responsibility. In my admittedly unscientific examples, I show how people who could benefit most from gender equality, still at times unconsciously buy in to the cultural norms that in a different context work against them. In the hetero-normative context in particular, how do you solve the relational predicament of the woman who wants to both be paid the same as a man with whom they know themselves to be equal with but also wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a man who makes less money than they do? And what do you say to the man who doesn’t subscribe to these cultural norms but gets looked down on by folks because he prefers staying home with the children?

“The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” — Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The fact is that gender and pay equality is not a threat to anyone and could do our entire society a great deal of good. I’m of the mind that we’re having such a hard time with making the changes we need to make because we’re effectively trying to run a new operating system on an ancient computer and no one wants to invest in an upgraded system for fear of what they might lose. I imagine that some people may have a challenge with what I am suggesting and may take offense at how I am articulating it. But, rather than take offense, I challenge you to have a conversation about it and witness what comes up. If you think what I am suggesting is off base, I invite you to consider that the unconscious cultural assumptions about gender roles are so insidious, that they even dictate the pay structures for men who are working in roles that people culturally assume would be a “woman’s role”. Think teachers, nursing assistance, flight attendants, secretaries, people in the food industry, etc. Many of these folks work harder and carry more on their shoulders than many of us “professionals”. But, I suggest that their pay and benefits are so lacking because of the unconscious bias that their work is “women’s work” and that anyone with their “optional job” has a husband at home who takes care of their financial responsibilities. Now ask yourself, do you think their level of pay would be acceptable if every employee was treated as if they were a hetero-normative white male who had a family to provide for?

After being in business for three decades, my mom ended her work career as a nurse’s assistant making barely above minimum wage despite having had multiple degrees, to include a master’s degree and most of her course work complete for a doctorates. And, while I can admit that my mom may have struggled less if she “played the game” better, is it right that she would have had to? But, even though I am using my mom’s story as an example, do not confuse my intimacy with my mother’s story as a bias without merit. I am sharing this personal perspective, because I see a lot of people trying to figure out how to do a new thing in an old way and being surprised when it fails. And I am the type of person who can’t just watch resources be wasted in this way and not say anything. I am going to speak into the culture and I am going to contribute to the areas where I am impassioned to share. Sustainable models for creating truly inclusive spaces is where I feel that passion. And I see a lot of room for improvement.

You can’t use the same mind that got you into a situation to get you out of it. – Albert Einstein

I know that I said a lot. But, in the grand scheme, it is not enough if we are ever going to live into the potential of a society of equals. That’s why, I am inviting anyone who reads this to take the conversation further. I volunteer for an organization called Living Room Conversations, who next year has the goal of engaging a minimum of 500,000 people from different sides of issues in conversations across dozens of subjects like this one. Their guides are being used in all 50 states and in 210 countries with people from all walks of life. And in 2021, the top 3 most downloaded topics were Women, Leadership, & Power; Mental Health; and Race and Ethnicity. Their intent is not to change minds, but to encourage engagement and authentic encounter. And that’s what I’m offering with this post. We cannot improve what we cannot talk about. So let’s start talking.

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