When it hits you in the gut: what the pay gap really feels like

When we hear about phenomena in the world, we can usually understand what it is we are talking about intellectually, but still it is often just statistics. It doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening to real people – real people with real feelings. Take the gender pay gap for example. Yes, I think many of us agree that it must be wrong to pay people less just because of their gender. Or their race for that matter. But it’s still just numbers. Pay should be fair, but looking at the statistics, it doesn’t really affect us. It doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

And one thing I know, is that without a sense of urgency, it is very hard to create change.

So, when I saw an article about how a woman reacted when she realized she was being paid less than her colleagues because of her gender, I though yes, things like this give these issues a face. They give them a feeling, one that helps us understand that this is not just a statistic, this is something that really affects Anne, Elisabeth, Sofia, Andrea… It affects how they feel about themselves. It affects their sense of worth. It affects their motivation. It affects what they can and cannot buy for themselves or for their children. It affects them. They feel the pay gap, it is something that can be felt.

In this article you see a woman who realizes she is holding her colleague’s pay check and you see how her face changes from confused to horrified to defeated. It describes so clearly that this isn’t just a statistic to her; it is a real, lived, physical experience.

Incidentally, the day after I read the article, I was looking through some papers in my office and I stumbled across a piece of memory work I once did. A few years ago, I participated in a workshop to learn about a method called memory work. What we were supposed to do was to write on a theme from our memory for a few minutes without stopping and just let it flow. Afterwards we read what we had written to each other.

The subject we were asked to write about was “A time when I was conscious of my gender.” As I sat down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I spontaneously started writing about an experience I hadn’t thought about for years. The words tumbled out of me faster than I could write them down. It was a story about the gender pay gap.

As I later read what I had written to the group, I got strangely emotional. This memory that I had buried deep inside my mind and not thought about in years, was surprisingly painful to read out loud. It was like ripping open old wounds. It was almost an out of body experience, because although it was about me, it was about a much younger version of me. Yet, it still felt surprisingly raw and painful. Maybe because I had never told anyone about it. I mean, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t being paid what I was worth.

Well, I’ve decided to share it here, my real experience of the gender pay gap. I’ve anonymized it because I don’t want to name any names, but otherwise it’s pretty much exactly as I wrote it in that workshop:

 

A time when I was conscious of my gender

I was about 25 or 26 years old. I was at my second job after graduating from business school, but I was only at my first job for a year or so, so I didn’t have a lot of experience or a lot of self confidence in my professional role. There is one thing I remember specifically that made me very aware of my gender. It was when I saw my colleague’s contract. We more or less did the same job, and we had been working for about the same amount of time – I may have worked a bit longer (since I graduated) – but I realized when I saw his contract that he had a higher salary than I did.

This was the situation: In the office I kept a lot of paperwork that concerned the team. I was the coordinator as well as having [other (the same as my colleague)] responsibilities. In the corner of my office there was a large, locked cupboard with double doors. I was kneeling on the floor in front of the cupboard, flipping through the folders that were kept in there. I was looking for something specific. I can’t remember what it was, but as I was flipping through some papers, I stumbled across his contract. It was in a plastic “pocket” and it had his name on it and I knew right away what it was. I saw his monthly salary, the one he started out with, because for all I knew he may have negotiated a raise already.

I felt the blood drain from my face and a knot develop in my stomach. I felt enraged because they had told me when I was hired and tried to negotiate my salary that there was no way they could possibly pay me more than what they offered. I had felt pretty good about it until now. I felt cheated, and I felt that it was because I was a woman. I had heard about women being discriminated like this, but I never thought it would happen to me. And it just had.

I remember sitting there, on the floor by the cupboard, with the binder in my lap, feeling just horrible. I think that was the beginning of the end for me at that company. I lost faith in the organization and in my superior. I realized that it was just business for him, that he was going to pay me as little as he could get away with. And even worse, I felt disappointed in myself because worse than feeling cheated is the feeling that you let yourself be cheated. I felt I was a stupid girl who let people discriminate me and pay me less than I was worth just because of my gender.

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Making the world better for boys too

My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.

There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.

I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.

I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.

Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.

This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.

And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.

Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).

He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.

So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!