working women

Ellen Pao on Meritocracy

Photo credit: dcJohn / / CC BY

Photo credit: dcJohn / / CC BY

Lately we have been thinking about the discrepancy we see between younger women starting their careers, and women with several more years of work experience under their belts.

It’s a generalization, of course, but many of the youngest, most ambitious women we hear from are often least likely to believe that gender equality is an issue in the workplace. Take Elizabeth*, a Harvard Business School student in her late-20’s. She’s worked in a difficult, male-dominated environment prior to business school and believes her gender is irrelevant. Elizabeth admits things might look different one day when she has children, but at the moment, she sees no difference between herself and male counterparts. (*Elizabeth’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)

When we speak to the youngest women in the work-force, we often hear things like “I don’t feel like there is any difference between me and my male counterparts. I can do anything they can do.” A Pew survey shows that 41% of millennial women think that being a working parent does not make having a career more difficult and 25% think no further work needs to be done in improve gender equality in the workplace.

Anecdotally, we hear these beliefs in our conversations. We also notice this viewpoint seems to shift — almost imperceptibly at first — as careers progress.

Ellen Pao describes this transformation in an essay she wrote for today’s issue of Lenny. Much like Elizabeth, she says: “I grew up believing the world is a meritocracy. It’s how I was raised, and it made sense for a long time.”

This belief sustained me, mostly, through my early 20s. That was 20 years ago, when I saw my prospects as awesome and full of possibilities. I was fresh out of Harvard Law School, and my classmates and I thought we could do anything we set our minds to do. I believed in the system, because it seemed to work, and frankly it was just so easy to believe

After a few scrapes, bruises, hard work, compromises and work-arounds, things started to look different:

But after a while, we were all treading water, just trying to get by as our ranks thinned and progress got harder. We were wondering, Is it just me? Am I really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough? Am I not funny enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong? Eventually, there comes a point where you can’t just rally and explain away all the behavior as creepy exceptions or pin the blame on yourself. And the glimmers of achievement are too few and far between. You see patterns, systemic problems, and it doesn’t matter where you are or what industry you pursue.

This is similar to the comments by former Yahoo President Sue Decker in her career reflections on the same topic:

I, and most women I know, have been a party to at least some sexist or discriminatory behavior in the workplace…At the same time, the men who may be promulgating it are often very unaware of the slights, and did not intend the outcome. And for the women, it happens in incremental steps that often seem so small in isolation that any individual act seems silly to complain about. So we move on. But in aggregate, and with the perspective of hindsight, they are real.”

While this evolution in perspective may be far from universal, it certainly does seem to happen often. There may be a lesson (or two) to draw from that journey. Pao, herself, ultimately draws the hopeful conclusion that things are improving.

While the world may not be a pure meritocracy, neither is it a horrible place everywhere. In our community, for example, there are some very happy women satisfied with their work, career achievements, and ability to balance their personal lives. We’re obsessed with what they share in common, and are currently studying what they say. Stay tuned!

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working women

Women in Finance Say They’ve Faced Discrimination…but Shrug It Off!

Efinancial Careers, a job site for financial professionals recently surveyed 1,000 people.  This is what the female respondents had to say:

  • 88% believe gender discrimination exists in the financial services industry
  • 33% say they’ve experienced gender discrimination, personally
  • 46% say that gender discrimination exists at their own company
  • Half of the 46% who say that gender discrimination exists at their own company would still recommend their company to other women!

From personal experience, I know that women who work (and thrive) in finance are an especially thick-skinned bunch.  This group of women have to deal with a lot of testosterone: trading floors filled with tough language, eating contests, competitiveness worn as a badge of honor, physical hazing activities, sports metaphors, strip club outings, etc.  If you’ve watched the Wolf of Wall Street, you’ve seen an extreme, gross caricature of what things have and still can be like.

It seems that the women in this survey have a defeatist attitude about their discrimination experiences.  The Efinancial Careers article cites a former-female-banker-turned-career-coach who hypothesizes that women who’ve survived and thrived in finance may just think that discrimination is part of the job/industry experience.  For these women who have gotten past (or through) their discrimination experiences, the idea is that they don’t believe it would have been different at another company.  In fact, the more educated the survey respondents were, the more likely they were to recommend their firm (even a discriminatory one) to other women.

Based on my conversations with women in finance, I believe there are important and real differences among firms, and departments within firms.  I’ve had enough conversations with women in finance to know that some companies and departments (usually due to the head of the department or group) are more egalitarian than others, and there are places with cultures and policies that are better for women than other places.  All of my conversations lead me to believe that women would not all equally recommend all firms and this is especially the case for women who have worked at multiple companies.  The truth is typically more nuanced than “its the same everywhere”.  For example, one woman told me that she would recommend a certain investment bank as a fine place for a young woman to start a career but that she would not tell other women that it would be a good place to advance beyond the VP level.  This kind of information is much more helpful to women in financial services than broad-brushed comments about whether discrimination exists in financial services, and is the type of helpful insight I hope Fairygodboss members will share.  If you’ve worked at more than one financial company, please share your opinion!

working women

When Does a Wage Gap Mean Discrimination?

In the past two weeks, there has been a lot of press about wage gaps, most notably at the White House and Goldman Sachs.  So today I wanted to spend some time defining “wage gap” and discuss the heart of the issue: when does a wage gap mean there was discrimination?

Here’s the definition of “gender wage gap” according to Wikipedia and the OECD: “the difference between male and female earnings…as a percentage of male earnings”.

Sometimes to understand something, its best to focus on what something is NOT.  A wage gap is NOT a comparison of apples and apples.  In fact, looking at wage gap (as defined) is not very meaningful at all.  I might as well compare what blondes and brunettes make, or what tall people versus short people make, and call any difference a “hair color wage gap” or “height wage gap”.

Knowing a person’s gender doesn’t allow me to compare them very meaningfully because a man and a woman may have different education levels, experience levels, have different jobs altogether, as well as different, difficult-to-measure qualities such competence, professionalism, negotiation skills, and marketability.

The Obama White House released salary data showing female staff earned 87% of what male staff earned.  But it explained this wage gap as due to the average female staffer holding a lower-paid position compared to the average male staffer, not discrimination.  The White House claims it pays equally for equal work (i.e. when it comes to the same position, the person makes the same amount, regardless of gender).

Goldman Sachs, is currently being sued for wage discrimination among other things.  Princeton University professor and labor economist Henry Farber got his hands on the company’s compensation data for the Associate and Vice President classes of 2003-2011 in New York City and was able to apparently see that female Associates and female VPs were paid 8% and 23% less than their male counterparts.

I have not looked at the data and only read about it here and here, but it appears Professor Farber’s approach is to address all the “legitimate” reasons (e.g. experience, tenure or education) for pay and promotion differentials between GS women and men and if they are ruled out, then discrimination is left as the cause.  Generally, elimination of other explainations seems to be the prevailing, accepted way to ‘prove’ discrimination causes a wage gap.  Is there any other way to justifiably conclude that a wage gap means discrimination?

Anyone with significant hiring experience who is honest with themselves, knows that people command higher job pay or receive promotions for reasons that may or may not be rational.  The best and worst hires are often impossible to predict and often known only in hindsight.  Therefore, maybe what is going on is ‘discrimination’ (defined by Merriam Webster dictionary as “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people”) but sadly, a function of our deeply flawed cognitive abilities which are notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to change or monitor on an individual basis even with the best intentions.

Therefore, maybe hiring policies should stop hiring personnel from making impression-driven decisions in the first place.  If you paid everyone who attains the same position the same base salary, then you know you are not doing something irrational.  This doesn’t address bonuses and promotions, but at least you’ve reduced any basic pay discrepancy between people who do the same job.  You might hate this suggestion because there’s a slippery slope towards a dystopian system where individual differences are not celebrated nor rewarded, but is there really evidence mere mortals can tell the difference correctly?  Maybe the best compromise here is to create a policy of equal base pay for equal job positions, and consider deviations from this practice as suspicious enough to justifiably conclude some discrimination unless otherwise proven.  It might be cheaper than all of these discrimination and equal pay lawsuits put together.