The Intangibles Of The Gender Gap

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.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. I really liked this post a lot, and I have two observations:

    1. Anecdotally (but it seems to work out pretty consistently), I have noticed that female professors seem more likely to put on their syllabus “Dr. So-and-so” or “So-and-so, PhD.,” whereas male professors seem more likely simply to put their first and last names. Again, it’s just anecdotal (and there are a number of male professors who do insist on being called “Doctor” and point out their credentials at every opportunity). In my personal crusade against calling people “Doctor” who have only a PhD in history, I try to keep in mind that the dynamics are or might be different for female professors in what in my experience seems to still be a pretty male-dominated field. So, I compromise and say “professor.”

    2. In most of my jobs, I have had female supervisors. I do think I treat them differently than I would a male supervisor. I believe I’m duly respectful, but I do catch myself doing things or pushing certain boundaries that I might not push, or might push more carefully, if the supervisor were male. My formerly marxist-sympathizer self would probably have just chocked this up to me as a worker seizing control of the social relations of production as best I could against an “exploitative” boss-worker relationship. But my current self is uneasy about it.

    • Thanks, Pierre.

      I’d love to say that I don’t treat female colleagues different from men, but I’m relatively sure I do. Women do, as well, I have come to learn (and often not in a way that favors women). I’ve only once had a female supervisor (and even then, she was one of three supervisors I had at the time). I have had women “above” me in the overall hierarchy, but even that has been pretty rare due to my career field.

      • In my experience, when I had women supervisors, they were usually the immediate supervisor and the people above them, or the ones above the people above them, were usually almost exclusively male. (I’m thinking of my work in customer service/banking). My current job is different in that it seems a lot, maybe even a majority, of the supervisors at all levels except the very very top are women (it’s a university library). It’s a different world, but I still sense similar gender dynamics despite what strikes me as near parity.

  2. Having started with such great descriptions of the problems presented to women (and underrepresented groups) in the workplace how do you end up with intractability and futility? Clearly the answer is government intervention and lots of it! I’m only half joking because the dispute over the desirability and efficacy of government intervention probably forms the foundation for lots of differences in policy outlook, but I’ll mention anyway some of the policy prescriptions that’ve been on offer: soft targets with comply or explain as the only sanction; recruitment efforts and mentorship programs particularly targeted at the underrepresented; short lists and long lists that prescribe diversity; guarantees that some portion of a target group reach a certain phase of the application process (first interview, second interview, etc.); or (ahem, my preferred solution) quotas with punitive action for failing to meet targets and deadlines, up to and including the dissolution of noncompliant companies (hurray Norway).

    Government can also ban practices that make identifying gender-based pay gaps more difficult, contracts that forbid disclosure of salary information – or even require companies (likely over a certain size) to publish self-assessments, reporting macro/aggregate figures on gender pay gaps. There are also the suite of policy prescriptions for making workplaces more family friendly: paid sick leave, parental leave, and so forth. As opposed to focusing on the thousands of individual choices, I think there’s an open avenue for public policies making the macro-environment far more welcoming to women and underrepresented groups participating in the workforce on more equitable terms. Not necessarily “easy” solutions, but far from impossible to make headway.

    • The transparency idea is a good one. I am actually a little iffy on salary transparency for other reasons, but I’d have to think about it along these lines.

      Would requiring interviews help? Maybe. In one of the above cases, we got excited about my potential replacement when we thought of her. Forcing the interviews might help bring candidates to light that might have otherwise been overlooked. On the other hand, it could be like the interviewing of black coaches in football, where it’s pretty transparently the case that some of the interviews are… disingenuous.

      Hiring targets, like Norway’s… I’m less sure about. It would work best in companies that already have significant amounts of female presence because you have a significant number of people to choose from. Maybe this would encourage companies to work on that, or maybe it would result in female boardmembers that are tools of men.

      I think my less-than-sanguine look at it is that so much of it relies on personal attitudes. It’s possible that putting a lot of women in leadership would help change attitudes down-company, but for various reasons I am skeptical of that, too. (If medicine is any indication, the women in leadership at present are often cut from a different cloth than the women wearing the white coats.)

      I will be addressing maternity leave in another post coming up soon. A sneak preview, I don’t think the tensions go away just because you tell an employer that they have to do this or that.

      • I look forward to your post on maternity leave. I agree that equalities legislation isn’t a quick fix, people have been struggling with the inequities mentioned here for far longer than efforts have been underway to remedy them. That said, I think government can play a powerful role in driving social change, both in making public policy and using competition for government contracts as a lever. If companies tendering proposals were also asked about how family friendly their workplaces are (and to provide evidence) it would help focus their minds. Both carrots, like more favorable contracting consideration and sticks, like fines or dissolution of noncompliant companies, could help shift the macro-culture. Also, over time government can help shift expectations of what workplace environments should look and feel like, I’d argue there’s been a significant shift in part due to measures against hostile work environments, anti-sex discrimination related measures. Some healthy threats could help too, Chancellor Merkel warned German industry on gender inequality, “be creative or we [the government] will be creative”.

        I also agree that more women in senior positions, like board level, doesn’t by definition mean corporate environments far more sensitive to the concerns of women. But on the other hand, there’s an increased likelihood that alternative perspectives will at least get a hearing. IIRC the UK parliament had an all-party parliamentary group (essentially a caucus) on football years before they had a group on childcare in part due to the gender imbalance among MPs. Some items may not even come onto the agenda in all (or vastly) male groups that’d be more likely to be raised when women are more fairly represented in a given context.

        • I’m not 100% opposed to legislation. There are some that I am critical of. When it comes to gender rights, one of my thresholds is “To what extent might this come around and bite Clancy’s career in the arse?” The answers are dispiriting. There are other cases, as a man, where I look at potential laws or even rules where I say “No, I don’t think that should be.” (I read an article a while back where the secret to getting more women in technical careers might be to – entirely voluntarily – strip techie workplaces of gender-leaning artifacts. I consider that to be a bad idea, unless we’re talking about things that are genuinely offensive or can be reasonably construed as such.)

          This may be atypical, but at least in places my wife has worked, women can be far worse about work/family balance than men. As fewer women of influence aren’t those who handled the balance by choosing “work” at the expense of family – and thus are particularly unsympathetic to women who want a different balance – this may become less the case. Or maybe it’s not the case except for a few places where the wife has coincidentally worked.

          The maternity leave post should come up later this week. Pester me about it if it hasn’t come by next week. A word of warning, though, the overall theme of dispiritedness goes from here to there.

          (Women in the workplace, and maternity leave and such, have been on the brain lately due to my wife’s pregnancy and the male-oriented expectations of her current work environment. So I may have a lot to say in the coming weeks. Or maybe I’ll move on. Who knows?)

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