I had prepared myself to tackle this topic and talk about the wage gap itself, until while listening to an NPR piece about the “soft war on women in the workplace” I realized there was another war underlying this, a bigger one that women still are not winning. It is the cultural war of perception and expectation. Let me explain with a few examples.
Example 1: the Bitch versus the Leader. We all know this one and data has shown its existence. Women who take aggressive stances at work tend to be perceived, by women and men alike, less favorably than men taking the same stance. Men are seen as take-charge, leaders, maybe bossy but often in a more positive light or at least neutral. Women taking the same stance are seen as bossy and bitchy, almost always negatively.
Example 2: Family first versus not. No matter the choice you make about work hours, it's criticized. You work late so as to advance your career and the perception is that your family is suffering. You arrange to work from home so as to make time for family, and you get the half-smile or worse, the eye roll. You step back from projects so you don’t have to take time from family and the cries go up from the crowd “aha! See THIS is why women don’t advance!” Fathers putting in long hours at work are “providing for the families,” and maybe at the worst there is a side sympathetic comment about their kids growing up too fast and dad missing it. Women doing the same don’t get this generous a response. Sarah Palin was roundly criticized for going campaigning when her son was a baby, despite her having an obviously supportive family. Marissa Mayer was hit from all corners for setting up a nursery on site at work so she could get back to her new job sooner as Yahoo CEO. I bet you everything in the house that if she instead had taken more(or less) maternity leave, she would still have been hit with criticism and snarky comments.
Example 3: The unmarried/without children trap. This group of women faces a different set of expectations and trip-ups because they are perceived to have fewer social obligations/responsibilities. They are expected to work longer hours, more holidays etc (after all, what ELSE could you be doing with your time besides working and sleeping, right?). If they don’t, they get it from all sides about not being dedicated to their careers. But then if they ARE, they get the societal tut-tut about being selfish and not taking time to “find a man”, settle down and blah blah blah. I assure you that single men do not face this same you-can’t-win scenario.
There are more examples of this double-edged situation that exists for women where it just doesn’t for men. A woman cannot be too attractive or unattractive at work. She cannot be too soft-spoken or too loud. She cannot be too dedicated to work nor show too little dedication. Her family cannot get enough of her nor too little. I illustrate this cultural perception issue because it factors into our successes through those people making decisions about our careers, salaries, and promotions. If the board of the hospital sees me as a “bossy/bitchy woman”, they are less likely to promote me to a leadership position(to which wages may be linked) as opposed to if they see me as a “strong decisive leader.” Cultural perceptions tend to be pervasive just as these are, and affect both men and women. I daresay most women were embarrassed and dismayed at the study showing that women were also more likely to offer a job to a male candidate than a female, despite them having the exact same qualifications.
While listening and reading all the opinions and data about the wage gap, I realized that until the cultural perceptions of women change that the wage gap will not close. We can put in structure/policy to help but it will not eradicate it. There are many reasons why the gap exists, and the cultural undertones are major contributors. Until we are as likely to ask a man about his balance of work-life-child rearing practices or dating life as we would a woman, until we stop referring to job candidates as female or male and just talk qualifications, until the same words are used to describe a strong leader of any gender, we will continue to undermine successes of women in the work place. And the wage gap will persist.