Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why Women Don't Advance

In her own singularly inept way, iterim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has done us all a favor (and we should thank her for it, really). She has managed to get us all talking again about the gender pay gap.

First, of course, Pao sued Kleiner Perkins for discrimination, and that got us talking about the issue. (A jury of six men and six women rejected Pao's claims of discrimination in a high-profile trial that highlighted Pao's poor job performance as much as anything else.) But then, last week, Pao made headlines when she announced a policy, at Reddit, of not allowing salary negotiations at hiring time.

Ellen Pao
Pao's reasoning is that job applicants who happen to be gifted at salary negotiations shouldn't be allowed an advantage over applicants who are well qualified (in terms of job-appropriate skills), but meek and timid when it comes to negotiating. Which does have a certain logic to it. But one wonders: Is that the best Pao can come up with for fixing a serious, complex, systemic issue like the gender pay gap (which of course she simplistically and unhelpfully attributes to sexism)? Squelch dialog? Penalize people with important business skills? Surely those aren't the principles Pao used when selecting attorneys to represent her in court? (Or maybe they were. She lost, after all.)

No one who's looked at the data disputes that the pay gap issue exists (not just in the U.S., of course, but in nearly every country, across almost every industry). In America, it even exists in female-dominated professions like nursing.

The earnings disparity between men and women has become less glaring over time (from 1970 to 2007, the U.S. pay gap shrank from 38% to 22%), but despite decades of progress, and recession after recession in which men have born the brunt of the economic damage, the gap refuses to go away.

So maybe it's not such a simple problem? Maybe it's not just "sexism" or straight-up discrimination? Certainly discrimination is a non-trivial part of it, obviously, but to assign the whole thing to "discrimination," it seems to me, is simplistic, unimaginative, and wrong.

Maybe the problem goes much deeper than any of us wants to believe.

Douglas Kinnaird, managing director of UK recruitment consultancy MacDonald Kinnaird, tells the story of an attempt by a British utility company, in the 1990s, to increase the number of senior women. The company established a positive discrimination policy designed to promote women over men. "After three years, it found there was no change whatsoever," Kinnaird recalls. So the company hired a consultancy to find out why. They found three main reasons. "The first was chauvinism; males didn’t want to recruit females but, fascinatingly, females did not want to work for females in some cases. The second [reason] was that when a job came up internally, women just didn’t apply. The third reason was that most people who progress in a large company are mentored – and senior men simply were not prepared to do that with young women, because of the potential for gossip, and so women can’t get a mentor."

Now we're getting somewhere. Women discriminating against women; women unable to find a proper mentor; women not applying for higher-level positions, positions that might be (how shall we say?) distasteful in some way.

But there's more.

It's well known that the gender gap only gets more pronounced the higher up the food chain you go (an effect known as the "glass ceiling"). Women simply don't advance as far or as fast as men, when it comes to C-level and boardroom appointments. Mary Keane-Dawson, CEO of Convertr Media, alludes to a possible reason: "Women find the toughness of business very hard to work with in the long term. Business is not about being horrible, but you do have to be able to make decisions that sometimes won’t make you popular." English translation: Capitalism, at the highest levels, as practiced today, calls for art-of-war "skills" that make most women's stomachs turn (and maybe rightfully so).

Again, now we're getting somewhere.

Men and women differ in how they view the world. One way this comes to be expressed is in self-esteem. In 2009, Brittany Gentile and colleagues published a meta-analysis (Review of General Psychology, 13:1, 34-45) on Gender differences in domain-specific self-esteem. It's worth quoting from the abstract:
This meta-analysis examines gender differences in 10 specific domains of self-esteem across 115 studies, including 428 effect sizes and 32,486 individuals. In a mixed-effects analysis, men scored significantly higher than women on physical appearance (d = 0.35), athletic (d = 0.41), personal self (d = 0.28), and self-satisfaction self-esteem (d = 0.33). Women scored higher than men on behavioral conduct (d = −0.17) and moral–ethical self-esteem (d = −0.38).
Maybe success-beyond-your-wildest-dreams in the job world inevitably favors people whose self-esteem isn't easily wrecked by the peculiar moral and ethical requirements of capitalism? Is that too touchy a subject? Too dangerous a hypothesis for the Ayn Rand apologists?

All by way of saying: This is a deep subject, not one that can be unpacked in five minutes by focusing myopically on discrimination (as convenient as that would be), or issues around pregnancy leave (which can be solved by requiring men to take it when women take it), or the dozen other standard-playbook issues that get tossed on the table whenever the "gender gap" comes up in polite conversation.

As I say: Ellen Pao has definitely done us a favor. She's put the gender gap back under a spotlight. She has facilitated dialog, by trying to stop it. And: She's made it clear what kind of place Reddit is to work at.

Thanks, Ellen. Good luck at that next job. And the one after that. And the one after that.

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