Friday, July 1, 2011

Owen McShane: The Gender Wage Gap and Communication Connectivity

The gender wage gap may seem unconnected to development economics, the RMA and local government. But the connection is real, if only because the recent debates remind us that when society experiences a rapid rate of social change, then many individual attitudes are likely to depart to some distance from reality.

While the gender wage gap may not be closing enough for some, the very idea of a wage gender gap has been a matter for social concern only since the sixties. And indeed I feel as though I am trapped in a dinner party of some forty years ago. Of course, gender wage gaps do exist.

In New Zealand, for example, since the eighties, young unskilled males have been paid less, on average, than young unskilled females, and they find it harder to get jobs. When did you last deal with a young male bank teller?

This gender inequality is because most jobs for young unskilled people are in the service sector, where young women have many advantages over young men.

For example, their speech is less likely to be limited to grunts and profanity, their "tats" are more discreet, they bathe more regularly, they dress better, and are generally better at customer relations.

So if we believe in getting rid of the gender wage gap should we dismiss these observations as sexist rubbish discriminating against men, and then pass a law requiring that young women’s pay is reduced to match that of young men?

Most of the gender wage gap is because high female participation in the labour force is comparatively recent and so the general cohort has not had the same work experience as the general male cohort. This is just another way of saying my lot are getting old. The gender pay gap is closing as that gap in work experience closes, and as more women than men graduate from university, and more women elect to train themselves for highly paid careers, and starting their own businesses.

A Snap shot of the Recent Past.

When I left high school in 1959 I enrolled in the Engineering Intermediate courses at Auckland University.
As I recall there were about 80 in the group of students, and only two of them were women.

I actually found more common ground with architectural and arts students and found the narrowness of the Engineering degree disturbing.

Then I found that women were not allowed to complete their Engineering degree because the courses were at Ardmore and there were no toilets for women at the Engineering School. So even if those two women completed their Intermediate they could not become engineers, at least at Auckland.

My “sexist” response of the time was to complete the Engineering Intermediate, but then to switch to Architecture because there were more women doing Architecture and heaps doing the Fine Arts degree.
After all, there are two reasons we go to University.

But this approach to women aspiring to be engineers was the accepted norm in 1959.
Now, some fifty years later, young people today can hardly believe it.

Consequently, it is not hard to imagine a not too distant future where the gender gap between men and women continues but with women, on average, being paid more than men.

A Historical Perspective.

When we consider the whole of human history, and even recent pre-industrial behaviour, there was no gender 
wage gap if only because so few people earned wages as we know them.

For a million years or so, there was a clear division of labour between the sexes. (No pun intended). Women got pregnant, and gave birth, and survived if they were lucky. They then took responsibility for the nurture and raising of those children. Women made the clothes and pottery, probably invented agriculture, and nursed the sick and wounded. In return the men protected their women and hunted, gathered and fished. Women died in child birth, men died at war, or in the hunt.

This division of labour was strict and often reinforced by taboos and the law.

As civilization developed some women rebelled – most notably the women who joined convents and hence escaped from the risks and drudgery associated with childbirth, and from brutal treatment by drunken men. Queen Elizabeth the First decided to be a Virgin Queen because she knew she could not be a “Prince” (her words) if she became enslaved to the pregnancy, birth, and domestic cycle that was so demanding and risky at the time, in spite of servants and wetnurses.If she had married she would have been totally under the sway of her husband as was her sister when married to Philip of Spain.

 It’s fair to say that women first began to compete for men’s work as a result of the 20th century wars, and the reduced demand for masculine physical strength from the development of machinery. But custom and technology (no birth control pill) meant that working for wages was a short term excursion for the vast majority of women and many never saw the need to slave at a desk rather than at home. Some still don’t.
Naturally, the gender wage gap prevailed – but this experiment in social organisation has been with us only since last century and women have had a genuine long term choice between their career and child-raising only since the arrival of the birth control pill in the sixties.

The gender wage gap is probably closing faster than most predicted. More women are graduating from tertiary institutions than men, and more and more women are becoming entrepreneurs and owning and running their own businesses. Many couples now work from home for most of their lives and work out a division of labour to their own satisfaction. This is becoming more common, as both men and women live, and remain active in their careers long beyond “retirement age”

Telecommuting is another driver of such trends. And of course, women now drive their own cars and have gained a whole set of freedoms – which some men still resent.

Auto-mobility means autonomy.

Maybe this explains the love affair with trains among many social conservatives.

Given that society is changing so rapidly, and given that most of us want to be in charge of our own lives, we should probably leave well alone, and resisted mandated “skill based” setting of pay rates.

And we have to accept that such rapid changes will always leave some struggling in the wake. Look at all those men longing for women to be stuck with public transport.

The Impact of Telecommuting and Working at Home on Women’s Choices and Productivity.

Remarkably, taking time out to have children may now be helping close the gender wage gap because of the growing popularity of telecommuting. A career woman can now take four days a week away from the office  to raise a child and when she finally returns to work she will have a stronger CV because she has demonstrated a sought after skill – the ability to work unsupervised. Consequently, she has a better chance of being put in charge of the next branch or overseas office.

In New Zealand many seem to regard High Speed Broadband as a minor add-on which will do no more than allow teenagers to download their movies faster.


Certainly, those who want to reduce energy use, foster more productive business, and reduce congestion should support this force for dispersal rather than insist on further intensification and trains. (Read the full report, as opposed to the media release above, here.)

Conclusion – just go for it!

Women should just catch the waves and ride into the future. All these trends suggest women should focus on the future, which is delivering the goods, and stop wasting their effort on period pain nonsense and other passé crap. If we are going to count period pain what about hangover headaches?

 Read Virginia Postrel on glamour and style and realise the world is now the women’s oyster.

As I said earlier, this current debate makes me feel stuck in a dinner party of thirty or forty years ago. In the meantime, much of the outrage over Alasdair Thompson’s comments seem to me to be driven by a lot of silly men indulging in an “inverted feminist” pissing contest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"it is not hard to imagine a not too distant future where the gender gap between men and women continues but with women, on average, being paid more than men"

And who would care about this issue under those circumstances? It is not hard to imagine that if men complained they would be demonized and their concerns/comments dismissed. If the pay gap between the genders reverses, I very much doubt it would be considered much of an issue by society at large, let alone one in need of being addressed by society. It will then be clear that the 'cause' is not equality or justice but promoting approved of persons/causes, and changing the make-up of society, while relegating unapproved of persons/causes.

The fact is that women are in many influential roles in society, and that being female is not a barrier to any appointment. Under Helen Clark's government, just about every key position in the country ended up being held by a woman. How many people thought the reversed gender imbalance at the top needed to be addressed?

Social reformers, whatever label they might apply to themselves, are not all looking for a fairer world. Many of them champion one groups rights at the expense of others and see no problems in so doing. Others simply champion a group to which they belong and are therefore directly self-interested. And many so-called feminists will overlook women's issues when championing the rights of a group that oppresses women over a group of people that doesn't oppress women but are otherwise disapproved of.

Yes, many social reformers are hypocrites. Many prominent suffragettes moved on to leadership roles in the fascist movement. And the Nazis were the founders of the modern Green movement. Such should be a warning to those who champion the new liberalism, or should that be progressivism? But then how far have we progressed since the 1930's? Today's so-called progressives share much of the ideology espoused by the likes of Mussolini. And statistics inform us that many of the prejudices of the period are at similar levels today.

Statistics also inform us that about two-thirds of university graduates are women, and there's been an educational gap favouring women for decades. Men have also been disproportionately represented in other statistics of failure, not just in educational achievement, but also in the likes of unemployment, crime, etc. Has there been as much concern over such as the gender pay gap?

All other things being equal, the fact is that men and women are different. Women bear the children, and because of this often take career breaks and/or work part-time. Under such circumstances a gender pay gap would be expected. The fact that the pay gap looks likely to close or reverse is indicative of a problem for men beyond those already mentioned. And I suggest that it is going to be a significant problem for society as a whole, not just for the worst affected men.

Unfortunately, I don't see a societal climate that is mature enough or really concerned enough to engage in a conversation about the already well-documented issues facing society as a whole in the face of a reversal of gender inequality that is likely to be far more problematic for society than any other inequality before it.

Society should be careful what it wishes for! Do you really want to live in a society where men earn less than women? Do women want to live in such a society? As far as I can see, not only do most men still define themselves by what they do for a living and how much they earn, but also most women still expect the men in their lives to have good jobs and be good providers. Realistically, you can't have a society where the average man's wage is less but maintain average expectations that men are still the main providers. Women increasingly express disappointment in men, and unrealistic expectations fuel disappointment.