[Editor's Introduction: Chris]: This is Part I of a two part piece. Part II will be published on Wednesday. Part I lays out the question of gender pay gaps and flawed ways of responding to that problem. Part II lays out an alternative perspective and a possible solution to the problem. Given the length and the depth of its engagement with the subject matter, we thought it to best to publish it serially.
I learned my most tangible lesson about the gender pay gap standing at the door in my housecoat at 11 am one day seven years ago. An amiable young man doing a survey of some sort had knocked on the door, and in the delirium of sleep-deprivation that was my first year of motherhood, I assented to answer his questions. Age, address, all the usual stuff came first and I answered automatically: automatically that is until he got to the seemingly menial question of my “Occupation”. The word went in through my ears, vibrated through my auditory canals and happily fired up neurons in whatever parts of my brain it would, when suddenly, the meaning of the question exploded something in my reality. There was a long pause, followed by the faint tinkling of my meaning making falling to pieces. The force of habit of a decade of answering “commercial fisherwoman” ran smack into the recent reality that I wasn’t out fishing, I was. . . my mind scrambled, sorting through what it was I did with my days, and what kinds of occupation-type words were fit to describe this. Finally after what felt like an hour but was probably only 3 long seconds, a phrase tumbled out of my mouth, the meaning of it registering as I was saying it aloud for the first time in my life: “I. . .I’m a . . housewife”.
I was actually stunned to hear this – what was happening to me, how on earth had I ended up a housewife? Hearing the word, I had felt. . . reduced. And a certain reality of my situation cut through my semi-delirium: as a housewife, looking after my kid, I made $0 dollars per day. Running a boat, I had made – on a good day – up to $5000 for a day’s work. A day’s work that was, for me, hard work but still easier than being home with an infant. I understood that I had made this choice, but truly, there was no sense to be found in my experience of the two realities that could explain why one role paid me fairly well, and the other role absolutely nothing. So as I do, I started to do a little digging, and being an integral scholar and practitioner, one of the things I came across while digging was Warren Farrell’s book, Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap and What Women Can Do About It.
Farrell is something of a ‘go-to’ guy for gender issues in the integral community. He has numerous dialogues, presentations and articles on Integral Life, and Ken Wilber endorses him. Farrell gave a keynote on gender at Integral Spiritual Experience 2 in 2010. After taking in some of Farrell’s writings and speeches, and mixing these with my own experiences working 14 years in logging and commercial fishing, it occurred to me that if Integral wants to play a leadership role in the arena of gender, if it wants be 'an idea whose time has come' and not an accidental shooting-of-oneself-in-the-foot, then we need more depth in our understanding and discourse vis-à-vis gender. Integral as a community, and especially one that touts itself as postmodern and even post-postmodern, really needs to refine its participation in the discourse on gender, especially the topic of the pay gap, in a way that at a minimum recognizes constructs, especially the constructed nature of economic value.
Do we want to soak up the blood, or stop the bleeding?
In the intro to his book Why Men Earn More, Farrell explains that the tome is a response to a conversation he had with a CEO some years prior about the pitfalls of dealing with gender differences in the workplace. The CEO was explaining how he had taken to hiring women and paying them less, rather than hiring men with more experience and having to pay them more, saying “…we move [promote] good women more quickly than we move good men, which is really discrimination against men, but it ends up looking like discrimination against women when we pay them less for less seniority.” (p. xvi)
Farrell and the CEO agree this is a situation of reverse discrimination. Unfortunately, the book does not go on to sufficiently make the case for such discrimination, nor to explain why this happens. In fact, the problem with much of Farrell’s answer to why men earn more is that he simply describes that they do earn more, rather than explain why this is so. That wouldn’t be a problem except that the title of the book leads us to expect an explanation.
So what are some of the causes, and why does it matter to explain them adequately? It matters because our explanations inform our solutions to the pay gap: the ones Farrell offers soak up the blood, which is necessary, but why not stop the bleeding in the first place?
Ultimately, his solution is to get women to play the work game with the same strategic perspective as men typically do— in other words, his advice is that women better adapt to the economic system as it existed. In 2008, three years after he wrote the book, that economic system imploded, leaving in its wake things like the global economic crisis, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Euro-crisis, the mortgage bubble, the Occupy movement, Ireland, Greece, and so on and so forth. It seems Farrell, along with so many others, was blind to the flaws in the current construction of economic systems and how that was about to change the game.
A central problem with getting better at the work-game, as per the 25 ways Farrell suggests in his book, is that it’s like showing women how to get on one of the lifeboats on the Titanic— good for those who get on one, but not a good overall strategy if we care about more than just ourselves. I think the more salient question is, can we design a ship that has enough lifeboats for all the passengers onboard and can weather global economic storms with more stability for passengers? Because if we can, then putting energy into how to make sure you get on the lifeboat becomes obsolete. At this point in time, given the realities of globalization and our fundamental interconnectedness, the wisdom of going for solutions like Farrell suggests, ones that don’t take into account the well-being of the larger whole, are ill-advised.
Why does the map matter?
There is value in having an accurate explanation, a ‘truer story’ about a problem you’re trying to solve. A more robust map of the territory of pay and gender interaction helps us avoid the longer term dead-ends that Farrell’s solutions lead women towards. What follows is a light first sketch of that map, offered with the intention to inform how women— and men to whom it is of interest— might make a workplace that contributes to a more just and thriving global society.
NEUROECONOMICS AND THE GENDER PAY GAP
Nowhere in Why Men Earn More does Farrell take into account simple hormonal and neurological differences between genders that impact economics. The field that does take this into account is called NeuroEconomics.
Joe Herbert, professor emeritus in Neuroscience at Cambridge, whose specialties include the study of genetics and hormones in financial decision-making, understands that the economic system does not just exist ‘out there’. He understands that it has been constructed to be what it is, and done so predominantly by the male gender. He states, regarding women working in the finance industry: “Women, in very general terms, are . . . less concerned with the status of being successful. If you want to make women more present [in the finance industry], you have to remember two things: the world they are coming into is a man-made world. The financial world. So, either they become surrogate men… or you change the world." Since Farrell does not seem to have this perspective online, his solutions remain mired in improving ways women can become surrogate men: work more hours, be willing to move for higher paying positions, etc, etc. Meanwhile, that economic systems of compensation are constructed seems to be off the map that Farrell offers for understanding the problem, and hence also for informing solutions.
Farrell’s point #25 (p. 115) in his book, that pay is commensurate with productivity affirms the pay is constructed according to some value system, but does not question the value system that is the source of the bleeding, to harken back to our earlier metaphor. Let’s take a look at how this construction might play out in the work world with the example (taken from an article in the Guardian) drawing on the research and expertise of John Coates, also a neuroeconomist at Cambridge specializing in biology and risk-taking. He gives the example of male vs. female investment bankers over a five year span, demonstrating how even when a woman’s productivity is greater, because of how productivity is constructed— i.e. short time span, and looking at select factors— the value of her contribution doesn’t register on the meaning-making radar of those who are assessing her performance. As Coates explains:
"Say you have two traders. One trader makes [the bank she works for] $20m a year for five years, of which she might typically pocket a couple of million a year herself. At the end of five years she has made the bank the best part of $90m. Another trader makes [the bank he works for] $100m a year for four years. They don't want that guy to go off to a hedge fund so they let him take home $20m a year. But then in the fifth year— because of the winner effect—he loses $500m. That is essentially what happened in the financial crash. The bank has lost $100m and the trader has gained $80m. If you were judging these things over a five-year period, then you can see which person you would hire."
So on a five-year time horizon, the woman makes the bank $90m and gets paid $10m for it. Same five years, a guy loses the bank $100m and yet gets paid $80m for doing that. In other words, the bank pays a woman one tenth as much as a man for much, much, much higher productivity. Clearly the values that inform our construction of productivity have the most 'up stream' influence on how much each person gets paid. But if you don’t see that the values are constructed, you might not know that they are a much higher leverage point to work on, and instead end up spending a lot of energy to get much less accomplished.
Susan Pinker is an award-winning social science journalist and author of the Globe and Mail’s column "The Business Brain" on the neuroscience and behavioral economics of the business world. In her book The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women, and the Real Gender Gap, she provides further support for debunking the ‘pay-for-productivity’ myth that Farrell uncritically ascribes to. She explains there is a male value system in place in the work world that sees working more hours as a sign of loyalty to the cause, but the increased hours do not indicate higher productivity. Farrell’s lack of taking into account the constructed nature of the criterion by which we measure productivity—such as time horizons and hours worked—leaves his solutions at best leading women to mimic men better, while leaving untouched the benefit of what they could bring to the workplace that could benefit both men and women, which I will come back to.
THE DISCOMFORT OF CHANGE VARIABLE
Perhaps a better way to understand Farrell and the less-than-frothy-edge solutions he offers is to plumb more deeply the dissonance he is responding to— and I’ll wager it isn’t the pay gap per se. I propose that the solutions Farrell offers have value to him because they ease the discomfort that men (and also many women who have committed to play by the extant rules) experience when women play the work game with a different set of motivations and values. These differences remind us that the work-world is susceptible to change, and they threaten to change not just how the game is played, but the construction of the rules of the game itself. If that happens, men may loose a traditional advantage they have had in the work-world, and that can be a tough blow for anyone.
At face value, change seems like it would be disadvantageous to men. Thus far, they have created an economic world that is a product of their world-view, so they are more likely to be able to do well in that world, or at least have it make better sense to them. In effect, Farrell’s solutions continue the status quo of the game and its rules; and asking women to adapt better thus avoids some of the discomfort that may arise as a result of deeper structural changes to the game.
Principles versus idiosyncractic explanations
To the extent that Farrell acknowledges a job’s economic value might be constructed, he offers two related principles in an attempt to explain why certain typically male jobs get paid higher wages than comparable but less dangerous women’s work. He calls these principles the ‘death professions bonus ’ and ‘exposure professions.’ Let’s take a closer look at what these are, and thus how they fail as principles to explain the pay difference. First, we need to understand a little bit about the difference between genders in their capacity to assess risk. In the interest of transparency, I will share that I worked in predominantly male ‘death professions’ and ‘exposure professions’ for fourteen years, (commercial fishing and logging industries). For the record, per the standard in the BC fishing industry, my pay was not related to exposure nor to death risk. In fact, exposure risk makes little sense in the worldview of fishermen and many others who chose outdoor work— it only exists if you think that working indoors is the ‘norm’. For the fishermen I have known, working indoors is rather something they might expect to get bonus pay for doing, since it’s so unrewarding from their perspective. Once again, Farrell position seems to be embedded in a pre-integral worldview, wherein he doesn’t see that he is coming from a perspective – or at least doesn’t acknowledge the limits of the one he comes from. Author, seated, and esteemed colleague prawn fishing BC coast.
Now to get back to the point of how the genders assess risk:
Farrell laments the injustice of higher male mortality rates, and in doing so taps into a compassion that is essential in any conversation regarding gender roles. There has been enough injury and misunderstanding, so compassion is a welcome attitude to encounter in this conversation. However, there is a tacit invitation in Farrell’s book for women to go easier on men since they sacrifice their lives for us. I am deeply grateful for the sacrifice that men have died for the freedoms I enjoy today as a western, democratic, educated woman. And, we need not be naïve that there are also other, perhaps more self-oriented reasons why men tempt death that have little if anything to do with sacrifice.
Having worked with young men on fishing boats for a decade, I frequently saw an over-eagerness in them to play the hero and put themselves in danger to do a task like tying up the boat, which could be just as effectively done without putting themselves in danger. Christopher Hedges, Pulitzer-prize-winning war correspondent, speaks from twenty years’ experience in war zones. He explains in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that there is an attraction and addiction to mortal combat that afflicted him, his colleagues and so many of the soldiers he worked closely with. So we might as well get real that for many men, the urge to tempt mortality, or pit oneself against a big risk and win is actually very rewarding. It gives them (as well as some women, whose number I count myself among) a buzz. They may deliberately not do things in a safer way because they don’t get as much ‘juice’ that way. If you want to see what I’m talking about in action, and beautifully so, click this link and wait for it,
It’s one thing to offer up one’s life in service of someone else’s wellbeing, but to assume that all risk-taking is grounded in this intention is an unnecessary distortion. To let this distortion run unchecked would likely weaken solutions to the problem of male mortality. If women are typically more risk-averse as various social scientists and neuroeconomists claim, then perhaps one reasonable solution to higher male mortality at work is to have men hear and heed women’s concerns vis-à-vis risk management. To his credit Farrell acknowledges that women tend to arrange their lives with a higher emphasis on quality of life and he allows that men might do well to learn from this example. I would caution that what makes for quality of life may vary by gender, and especially by the hormonal differences at different phases of life within each gender. Higher testosterone in a 21 year old man may lead him to find various risks more satisfying, for example, than when in his 70’s.
Farrell gives the opinion, which we are invited to take for a truth, that “Careers that are fulfilling, flexible and safe usually pay less.” Sounds like it could be true. Although if we pause to note that the words ‘fulfilling’ and ‘flexible’ are subjective rather than objectively laden, then we see how this is an opinion rather than a statement of objective standards of truth. He uses indoor jobs where you care for people as a standard for fulfilling and flexible. Actually, what’s fulfilling depends on your values, your nature, goals, needs (for esteem, position, prestige, level of influence, autonomy) life-stage, etc.
To illustrate this point with a personal example that reveals the assumptions built in to Farrell’s claim: I spent several days working in a ’fulfilling,’ flexible, indoor, people oriented profession working as a substitute teacher. I found it to be absolutely hellish. It was just too much everything for me; too many children, too much attention to have to give out, discipline to keep, questions to answer, disputes to deal with, etc, etc. By contrast, working on a fishing boat was paradise for me. My first day out on a boat, not even a mile out to sea, I figured I had died and gone to heaven. I found it way more fulfilling to be out fishing. What might be deprivation to some was adventure and satisfying challenge for me: being out in 50 knot winds, isolated from regular society for months at a time, living in cramped quarters with three men, all of us working 16-18 hour days and not showering for a week or more at a time. So to say that one job is more inherently ‘fulfilling’ than another is ignoring entirely the truths of relativity, namely that relative to a person’s temperament, expectations, motivations, preferences, gender even, the same job could be fulfilling or it could be hell.
Debunking the ‘death profession’ and ‘exposure’ myths
Farrell, while explaining the phenomenon of ‘the death profession bonus,’ does not take into account the influence of labour movements in equalizing power between labour and business owners, worker’s safety movements, or male modes of risk assessment. For argument’s sake, let’s leave these relevant factors aside for the time being and engage this series of questions: does it hold as a general principle that physically riskier jobs get paid more, or is this an idiosyncratic explanation? How and when does it hold? And based on what we discover, is there a broader, deeper, more accurate explanation than ‘death profession bonus’ to account for why some risky jobs get paid more, while others do not?
A few comparisons will show that the 'death professions' and 'exposure' explanations soon get in over their head at explaining the pay differential in physically high-risk, outdoor jobs. Both ‘principles’ or ‘theories’ only work when applied to an overly narrow data sample. When applied to broader data sets, as we shall see, these theories crumble.
To keep it simple and isolate the variables of death-risk and exposure that Farrell uses to explain pay scales, let’s leave out gender for now and simply compare two typically male professions to see how the ‘death professions bonus’ and ‘exposure profession’ explanations hold up without the complication of gender difference. A bomb disposal expert in the army is an example of a high death-risk, high exposure (to weather and the elements, as well as long hours, time away from home, etc) job that requires medium-length training in sciences and electronics. Compare it to a relatively ‘cushy’, indoor job which Farrell says is worth less pay because it’s more comfortable to work indoors. By contrast, a computer engineer has a slightly longer training period in science and electronics, followed by working in an almost nil death-risk, nil exposure risk environment. According to the job search website Simply Hired, average pay rates for Bomb Disposal Expert are $54,000 per year, whereas Computer Engineers average $76,000 per year. Hmm. So far, Farrell’s principle of death profession and exposure profession as being worth more than cushy indoor jobs are not holding up.
computer engineer at work
bomb disposal expert at work – apparently he survived, happily.
So Farrell’s explanation for danger-related pay at best seems to explain only a very narrow comparison between a few select typically male and typically female jobs. I reckon the reason this is so is that when Farrell wants to make the point that a certain job is worth more, he takes a ‘male job’ (garbage man) and compares it to a field that is ‘female’ (child-care worker), then looks for what’s different about those jobs as a way to justify the difference in pay. That is, he uses post-hoc ergo propter hoc logic to justify why ‘women’s work’ deserves less pay. However, by using the same logic on two typically male professions, we have seen that its explanatory power fails and how it is likely to fail in many situations. If working indoors at a relatively low death-risk job is reason to pay women’s work like child-care less, then why does a likewise relatively low death-risk, indoor job like computer engineer get paid nearly one and half times more than a high death-risk, outdoor job like bomb disposal expert? And this doesn’t even begin to touch on why CEOs would get paid upwards of thousands of times more than a bomb disposal expert when they have jobs that match the characteristics— more people oriented and very much indoors— that Farrell claims are what make women’s work worth less.
When we compare data sets like the bomb disposal experts in army versus computer engineer and cannot explain the difference in pay using Farrell’s reasoning, it suggests that there are other determining factors going into why one job gets paid more than another. The danger level and indoor / outdoor explanations he offers seem only to describe the existing difference between very select data sets of jobs that are typically male vs. typically female, and are far from being using principles in the larger economic landscape. It’s important to distinguish between describing the existing situation and conflating this with an explanation for how it came into being. If Farrell were to say that he’s simply describing what is, then what he says has value for its capacity to describe it. In making of it an explanation of causation, however, he mistakes the effect for the cause, which is bad science.
to be continued. Check back on Wednesday for Part II.