Schrödinger’s Gender Pay Gap

Today I write from atop the fence of the gender wage gap issue. Some wonder why feminism is still a thing and consider it a four-letter word. Some wonder why those people wonder that. As with most issues, I believe that most people envision a similar outcome but disagree about the current state of things, whose fault that state is, and the means of fixing it (some are at the extremes on both ends and beyond reason). Rather than tackle the ether of feminism as a whole, I want to examine that discord through the lens of a particular issue.

So let’s consider the gender pay gap. Now the one camp would point to the dollar or percent difference in pay as evidence of a gap. Opponents will often highlight that this is a single-variate analysis (gender) and when controlling for multiple variables, as one would in a socioeconomic study, that pay gap disappears.

Now, feminist friends, before jumping straight to, “Sure, if you manipulate the numbers enough you can get them to do anything you wish”. Much of that multi-variate analysis is accurate and does dismiss gender as the sole or even principal characteristic in determining wage gap. Rather, other determinants such as assertiveness and agreeableness seem to be at play. Misogyny and other forms of discrimination have a role, but none of the evidence suggests that is a primary motivation.

Other arguments similarly hold up to academic scrutiny. Women tend not to hold key government positions or executive roles. Women represent large portions of industries such as nursing and teaching, many of which pay less than male-dominated industries like STEM. Turning to our Scandinavian friends as paragons of gender equality might also backfire here, as the same gendered hierarchies appeared, suggesting that the genders naturally gravitate towards certain roles.

Again, much of the research into this tends to dismiss gender or sex as the culprit and instead focus on individual personality and characteristics. Open, conscientious, assertive individuals attain positions of power; timid, agreeable people strive elsewhere, and society values those positions differently. We need nurturing, agreeable people, but they are not the captains of industry that drive our economy, and by extension, our way of life forward.

But before my feminist friends start to feel too much that I have betrayed them, this is where my interest in the matter begins to take hold. See, society does indeed value certain positions over others, and those positions require certain skills. “What if CEOs were more agreeable and nurturing?” The other people trying to be CEO would eat them alive. It will not work – certain skills mean success in certain areas.

That is where things get interesting to me. Because for all of the “identity politics” talk levelled against the feminists, it seems odd to me that we should take society’s most successful positions and determine that the skills associated with them are “masculine” traits. It does hearken back to a time when attaining those positions was unacceptable for women – the opportunity did not even exist, let alone on an equal footing with men. Hell, women only gained the right to vote comparatively recently in human history.

The issue is not that certain skills are required for success in these areas, but that those skills have been determined as “masculine”.

Why is that a problem? Because the science is still out on the role of nature versus nurture on this matter. What we do know is that the perceived gender of an infant alters the way people approach said infant.

An experiment referenced in a previous post discussed two infants, one boy and one girl, whose clothes were gender swapped to give the appearance that the boy was a little girl and vice versa. When left with an adult supervisor to play, the subjects chose traditionally masculine toys like robots and puzzles for the “boy” and traditionally feminine toys like dolls for the “girl”.

In short, we have a long-defined tradition of what is masculine and what is feminine from which we refuse to sway.

What if, and this is purely a speculative if without hard data to back it, the reason why men succeed in certain areas and women in others is because from birth we begin to teach certain skills based on gender to individuals based on their perceived gender?

As a boy, I was taught to dominate. Be assertive, be aggressive even – the world was a competitive place that would not give me an inch. I would have to fight for everything I wanted against other men who would do the same. I could feel pain, but I could not show it, because that would be (gasp) to admit weakness to the others who would seize upon it for advantage. Growing up as a man involves considerable amounts of power and control.

Now I, as an individual, reject much of that. I am conscientious and empathetic – good qualities for a leader or captain of industry – but I am also conflict-averse, agreeable, and an introvert. I write because I have ideas that I need to express, but I rebel against any notion of celebrity. I simply do not have the energy for that. I want to compose my ideas but be left in peace. I don’t even mind crying when something moves me.

I am no leader. I will never run a company or hold public office. I will, in the eyes of the extreme masculine, fail as a man. That’s a gender expectation and I do not care. I work hard, my family lives comfortably, and my friends consider me a good person. I am content with my definition of success.

That is true of feminism – feminism is about choice and the rejection of gender expectations. At least, that is feminism as I came to understand it. Arbitrarily compelling 50% participation of women in STEM is not feminism – that is replacing one gender expectation with another, contriving an equality of outcome that no one wants and benefits few.

The focus must be on ensuring that unjust obstacles to STEM careers do not exist for those women who wish to pursue a STEM career, and that includes any instance where any one or group would seek to obstruct a woman from a STEM career simply for being a woman.

Returning to the original point though, what it the obstacle is not that STEM discriminates against women but that STEM is highly competitive and women are too emotional, agreeable, or passive to succeed in that field? In that case, I argue that said women have no place in STEM. The field is highly competitive and one has to live in a constant state of rejection. It would be a disservice to STEM to suspend those aspects of it to accommodate contrary skill sets, just as the NBA would not impose rules to allow short people to compete.

If you are a short person who can play basketball, who can overcome the height disadvantage, then you are welcome to play. Otherwise, the sport simply has no room on the court for you.

As an anecdotal example, I remember the outcry when a local firehouse decided to employ a female firefighter. Some argued that the station had to accommodate a woman who wanted to be a firefighter. Some maintained that firefighting was no profession for women. Most people settled in the middle, somewhere around, “If she can do the job, then she can be a firefighter”. My position was essentially, “If I were unconscious on the third floor of a burning building, could she help me?” No one wants to be wounded in an inferno with the token hire, right?

Let us return to the second point though. What if the reason for lack of women in STEM is that women lack the skills necessary to succeed in STEM because many women never learn those skills early in life. If we default to teaching those skills to men, can we really act surprised, indignant, or defensive later in life when men dominate the fields associated with those skills?

“We must teach young girls to be agreeable.”

“Women tend not to hold positions in STEM because they are too agreeable to handle the constant criticism and competition.”

In this curious sense, women are equal to men. Any woman is perfectly welcome to demonstrate the necessary skills and compete for the same positions, and women with the right skills will likely earn the same as a man in that position. Feminists take to the Internet in unrestrained rage against the patriarchy when they might simply go out and fight for these positions if they want them so badly.

Except that the men with which she competes have been training in those skills since birth because society expects those skills from them. She only recently learned of the importance of those skills as they relate to her interests, and at this point the matter is less about an individual acquiring specific skills as it is a woman learning masculine skills. We continue to define the skills in terms of masculine and feminine. It becomes a woman learning to be masculine.

And that manifests in other harmful ways that are not universal, but which do occur with enough frequency to require attention. Consider the example of assertiveness. One can under- or overcompensate with any characteristic. To be deficient in assertiveness is to be timid. To be excessive in assertiveness is to be aggressive. Where one desires assertiveness, neither of these extremes is welcome. Yet to some people (men in particular), where the delineation in these grades occurs is ambiguous. A woman demonstrating any degree of assertiveness is deemed aggressive, though words like bitch or cunt are more familiar synonyms used.

The opposite is true for men. We encourage men to demonstrate power, which has a long history of misinterpretation as an unwieldy form of tyranny. The power ought to come in the form of character and demonstration of admirable traits like assertiveness, but it becomes corrupted into a more physical sense of superior force. Men who fail to achieve certain levels of this in society face enormous pressure over the deficiency of their masculinity. They are too soft, too passive, too feminine.

But as with women, why should all men conform to any sort of expectation based on gender? The only men for whom this so-called deficiency is a problem are those whose interest aligns with positions that require those skills. If, for example, a man wishes to spend his days in a supportive analytic role or writing, those characteristics may not be necessary or desirable. To be certain, they are unnatural to some men. That does not make them any less male.

That is what rests at the heart of all of this. We are each of us individuals. Nature plays its card, over which we have no control. But then comes nurture… Nurture we should, impose we should not. To make determinations for other people about who they are or what they want is inappropriate, especially, especially when those determinations disadvantage someone from the course he or she chooses.

So a gender pay gap does not exist. A pay gap exists, but one based on multiple variables having more to do with individual characteristics. However, those individual characteristics may have strong gender biases.

I do not have the answer, folks. Sorry if you were waiting for the big revelation. I am not a social scientist and I do not have the data. I have seen the arguments for and against the gender pay gap and found these moments during breaks in working on fictional pieces to muse about them. I know I will not change opinions on this – some people believe the gender pay gap exists, others believe the multi-variate examination explains it away. Other people are just furious about my ignorance right now because I did not commit to their side fully enough. That’s human nature.

What I can say in closing is that I support individual liberties to the fullest extent that the social contract allows. No person should be unjustly denied opportunity. If we are denying women opportunities for equal pay or for representation in industries because of explicit hatred or the subtle, institutionalised brand of tradition I suggested here, we owe it to ourselves to correct that situation.

If women want to be doctors, congresspersons, attorneys, scientists, or the like and feel that path is not open to them, we must work with them. Perhaps the issue is not anything like I described and women do simply lack the natural ability to develop those skills – that does not stop us from training people in those skills. We can train away anxiety, we can learn leadership skills. If we genuinely create the equality of opportunity and people do not put in the necessary work, then failure belongs to them alone. If we deny equality of opportunity, then failure belongs to all of us.


(As always, readers will come across something with which they disagree – vehemently in some cases. I am actually quite open to new information and perspectives. Feel free to share them. I promise you, however, that if you choose to express that information or perspective like an asshole instead of a fellow human being, the expression will disappear along with your access to this blog. In other words, criticism encouraged; trolling not tolerated.)

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