It is remarkably easy for men to believe that the gender gap is primarily a function of life choices and that, when the rubber hits the road, there isn’t actually all that much discrimination. It’s true that the realities of the situation are more complicated than employers saying “Hey, it’s a woman, we’ll pay her 25% less.” There are all sorts of confounding factors. Men are often more attracted to riskier, but more rewarding career paths. Women are more likely to be attracted to public jobs, which pay less but have other benefits. It’s true that women are more likely to take time off for kids, more likely to take career hits by relocating for their husbands’ jobs, and less likely to put in long hours or view their career as central to their identity. It’s also true, of course, that these things are often a product of social expectations and norms.
To be perfectly honest, I am skeptical of “equal wage” laws as such. I remain, however, very cognizant of the problem. It’s something that I used to be too dismissive of. Then I married a doctor and suddenly our financial well-being suddenly depended on her getting a fair shake in the workplace. It’s probably not entirely non-coincidental, but I certainly started noticing more stuff that has given rise to questions of how fair a shake women actually get. Nothing opens one’s eyes like self-interest.
Though she works in a field that is populated with a lot of women, my wife has nonetheless been at the receiving end of situations that, as a man, I’ve never been confronted with. Back when she was in Deseret, there were a few male doctors that would only sparingly refer to her by her honorific, including in front of patients. Sometimes Dr. Himmelreich, but sometimes Clancy. This may seem like a minor thing, or that she’s getting uptight about being called “doctor,” but she did work every bit as hard for that title as the men did, and they did not seem to slip up with men, regardless of whether nor not there was an attending in the room. When she was in Cascadia in a fellowship, she had a (Mormon) resident continually call her Clancy on the job, in front of patients.
Now, Clancy can make a big deal of this or she can let it slide. If she lets it slide, she runs the risk of being perceived as less than a doctor. As a woman, and as a young-looking woman, this is a significant liability anyway. She is and always has been very frequently mistaken for a nurse. Being called Clancy doesn’t help. Of course, if she makes a big stink out of it, then she’s the woman who is making a big stink out of something trivial. Maybe one is the right answer, maybe the other is, but she and her female colleagues seem to have been confronted with it more often than the male colleagues. When Clancy is trying to convince a patient of what to do, these sorts of things do make a difference.
Some instances of sexism are really quite well-intentioned. There are a number of older male doctors who are simply trying to help. They’re taking on a “protective” role. Sometimes, though, this cam come across as second-guessing – especially when it’s done in front of the patient. And once again, Clancy has the choice of whether to confront this head-on or let it slide. If she confronts if head on, she runs the risk of being kind of a bitch to a veteran who is only trying to help. Yet, by doing nothing, her professionalism is undermined by being treated like a resident or medical student. Granted, she is a youngish doctor, and I can actually understand the desire to tutor, but this sort of thing happens in the obstetrical field as much as anywhere else, and she has more obstetrical experience than the vast, vast majority of family doctors (she’d delivered almost a thousand before she got out of training). And, once again, this is something that does not appear to be happening to the male doctors, even those without her level of obstetrical experience.
A few jobs back, in Deseret, I worked in a department that had two teams. The first team was more technical in appearance (using a bastardized XHTML), the second a little more secretarial in nature (formatting through work then converting to code from there). The former team sometimes paid more than the latter (almost never less), and was also the easier and less aggravating job. It was also staffed with men. Some of this was quite logical. They were hiring people with IT backgrounds for the XHTML team. People with IT backgrounds tended towards being male. It was notable, though, that when a woman applied that had the experience, they’d still tend to put her with the latter team. This wasn’t illogical, either, since it was genuinely felt that they’d be more comfortable working with the women than the geeks.
This wasn’t 100% percent. There came a point, though, when we were looking at two teams combining for 30 people and there was not a woman on Team A and not a man on Team B. It came up during a meeting of the leaders of the teams (I was the leader of the XHTML team by this point). There was an honestly “How did we get here, moment?” We sort of tracked back all sorts of decisions that had been made along the way… John worked on Team B and asked to be put on Team A, since we liked John we put him on Team A, but had to move someone from Team A to Team B and we chose Suzie because Suzie was always spending her spare time with Team B anyway… it was usually along these lines. It was never a desire to have the teams so segregated, but 1,000 individual choices lead us to where we were, just relieved that nobody was going to sue.
That’s the intractable part of it all. Even if you can get rid of any explicit decisions that are made, you’re still dealing with a lot of dynamics that are as likely as not to lead to particular results. If we’re looking at gender, it’s results that often appear to be favorable to men and unfavorable to women, more often than not. It’s often, though, not something you can entirely hang your hat on. It’s 100,000 decisions, to let John transfer and ask Suzie to take his place, to figure that Martha would “fit in better” on Team A, and so on. Decisions that, as often or not, female employees are very accepting of. Of course, they might be accepting because they’ve been more socialized to get-along-go-along and that if they decline to do so it might be viewed differently than a guy doing the same. And if they thought that, I could hardly blame them. I don’t blame women for requesting raises with less frequency than men, yet there’s no easy solution to the problem.
To repeat, there’s no easy solution to the problem. When I left the Deseret employer, I was supposed to be replaced by a woman as the lead. She would have been a disaster, and there were people (including women) threatening to quit if she got it, but it was going to be hard not to give it to her. Fortuitously, and perhaps not coincidentally, she and her husband both got a drug test, which they failed, solving a lot of problems. The gender problem was noted by this point, and we looked around to see if there were any other women to take my place. There was, it turned out! Someone we might not have noticed had we not been already thinking along those lines, but once we thought of her it was perfect! She turned the promotion down. I was replaced by a guy. There were likely 100,000 decisions made along the way that lead to that result.
And so it remains one of those things that there are no easy solutions for. Men and women are treated differently. Men and women make different decisions. Men and women make different decisions because they are treated differently. Men and women are treated differently because they make different decisions. Men and women respond differently to different situations. Men and women are put in different situations to respond differently to. All of which falls under the best case scenarios. I have over 1300 words here, and yet still believe that I left out far, far more than I put in.