My partner Sue emailed me a link to a NYT article this week, and prefaced it with: “Look, the wage gap has a cultural component! (Of course.) Very interesting story!” Well I finally had a few minutes to read it and interesting it was. It touches on various things, but among them is culture – which many people are often afraid to touch for fear of being seen as someone who sees women as “less equal” than men. I tend to get extremely excited when culture is brought up as a component of the (complex) reasons behind why a male/female wage gap still exists in the U.S. Culturally learned behavior and perceptions are real, and to ignore them is to consciously decide they either don’t matter or don’t exist (both of which are an insult to both men and women). In particular, this article mentions that many (though of course not all) women have learned, explicity or implicitly, that speaking up and assertively asking for things like raises and higher pay can be perceived as “unladylike” and can be seen as pushy or arrogant. And therefore in many cases, women may not even realize that they are “allowed” to ask! In fact, the article talks about how being assertive or being percieved as not nice enough or not friendly enough (relative to how women “should” be) sometimes actually results in negative consequences for women, like not being offered a job because you weren’t likable enough. Many if not most of these cases may be due to unconscious bias, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it happens. The point of the article is that “the good news is that all of these things [assertiveness in negotiating salary and raises] can be learned.” It cites various entities and individuals who are teaching these skills to girls and young women. But something about this just doesn’t sit all that well with me. And I think it’s this: teaching women to be more assertive and agressive in speaking up and asking for stuff is all well and good, and it will certainly help women be more successful in a man’s world – but it’s yet another example of how women must adapt to men to get ahead. Why is it never the other way around?
Imagine this alternate world: women hold the vast majority of leadership and powerful positions in business, education, and government. Men are paid 77 cents on every woman’s dollar. It’s found that part of the reason for this is that men tend to be too blunt and too forceful when they ask for what they want, and aren’t warm enough in their interpersonal interactions. Studies have found that employers generally find this type of behavior to be in opposition to teamwork, effectiveness, and success, and so men tend to get hired less often. How do we close this gender wage gap? Well here’s the good news - humility, collaborativeness, and warmth can be learned! Let’s go around the country and teach men when they’re young how they can work on their indirectness and modesty skills.
In that world, this solution might work – at least on the surface – because the reality there is that most places that hire people are run by women. But wouldn’t many men feel a little odd, a little uncomfortable, or even a lot uncomfortable – acting in ways that don’t feel natural to them? Would they be able to be their full selves at work, and make their best contribution, by acting as someone other than themselves? Maybe some of them would, but I’d venture to guess most of them wouldn’t. And that’s what bugs me about this article. When we start leveraging and embracing everyone’s styles – when we see the benefits of competition, collaboration, assertiveness, modesty, intensity, warmth, pushiness, and cooperation – and not systematically penalize one side over the other – we can explode our self-created limits and create and think in ways that we never thought possible.