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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What is important to you and when do you draw the line?

I had great plans for this blog post. I had a really good idea and I’ve been meaning to write it down for the past week and a half. It’s been almost two and a half weeks since my last post and for a blog where my intention has been to post weekly, that is a pretty long break. Especially since a person I met about half a year ago, whose opinion I really value, said to me after she checked out my blog, “I just have one criticism, I wish you would post more often.” That was a huge compliment, it meant that she really liked my blog. But it also made me feel pressured to actually try and be more active.

So that has been going through my head too, that and this idea that I have been meaning to write. I have just had too much to do, but have still also felt guilty about not getting my act together. Which is ironic, because this is my blog, which I write on my terms, about whatever it is that I want. No one tells what to write, or when or how to write it. This pressure I feel is all me.

Does that sound familiar?

It’s like when my son went from being a baby to being a toddler. One night, I was sitting on the edge of his bed at bedtime, looking at his window thinking that I really need to get him new curtains. He had baby curtains and I somehow had the notion that he needed kid curtains instead. I was sleep deprived, overworked and just overwhelmed in general, but still couldn’t stop thinking about how I really needed to get my act together regarding his curtains. It was eating away at me until I one day realized that the boy doesn’t even know he has curtains. His curtains were not hampering his development or cramping his style in any way, so why was I worrying about this? So I instantly stopped.

This example might seem ridiculous to you, but it is illustrative of how much of the pressure we have we actually inflict on ourselves.

Even at work. Yes, I know that corporate cultures can be very inflexible and stifling and there are certainly pressures that others put on us. But there are also things that we think we have to do or can or cannot do which actually aren’t things anyone has actually expressively said or taken a stand on.

Like the woman I met about a year ago who was working at a male dominated IT company when she went on maternity leave. They wanted her to come back to work earlier than she had planned and participate in meetings, and she wanted to do it too but was worried about how she was going to be able to do so with such a young child. I mean, she couldn’t take the baby with her to work. None of her colleagues had children and they were all male so that was just out of the question. Or was it? She finally realized that no one had actually said she couldn’t bring her baby to work, so she asked if it was okay, and it turned out that it was. She brought the baby with her to the meetings and nobody even blinked.

What she thought was impossible wasn’t.

But back to my blog. As I sat down to finally write it, I realized that I just didn’t have the energy. Writing about what I had planned to write about would have craved pulling out a few books and checking some facts and I have neither the time nor the energy for that right now. And since no one even knows about these plans of mine, much less expects me to write them down, why on Earth am I stressing about this?

When you have too much to do, you need to focus on what’s important. We’re not very good at that in today’s society, but sometimes you just have to draw the line.

We all need down time and the amount of work or pressure we can or should handle is very individual. You can’t compare yourself with other people; just because they can do something in a certain way, doesn’t mean that it works for you.

We have to remember to also take the down time that we need, regardless of what other people are doing, and not feel guilty about it. Because if you don’t take care of you, how are you ever going to be able to accomplish all the things you want to? If you become too exhausted or overwhelmed to carry on, it really isn’t going to help anyone anywhere in any way.

So, take care of yourselves and don’t think you have to do it all. Think about what is really important to you and focus on that instead.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!

What to do when you’re stuck

Anyone who has sat in front of a computer, staring at a blank document, knows what it feels like to be stuck. It can be quite paralyzing, and the longer you sit there knowing that you have to get whatever it is you’re doing done, the harder it is to even get started. Why does it have to be so hard? I don’t actually know, although I’m sure there is research on that, but what I have learned is how to deal with it.

Here is what I do when I realize that I just can’t seem to get what I’m supposed to do done. I stop trying to force it. I simply do something else. Some people might call this procrastination, but for some tasks – especially creative ones like writing or other forms of creation – forcing doesn’t necessarily work. But activity does.

Activity leads to more activity, and if you get going with something – anything really – then moving on to the task at hand becomes more doable. Sometimes taking your mind off it will even lead you to think about it again and consequently actually inspire you to get started.

Let’s not underestimate the power of the wandering mind. Also, your mind keeps at it even if you don’t, sometimes it just needs time to digest things. Besides, procrastination can be good for creativity as well as for reflection.

The fabulous Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila, who I’ve written about before, once told me that when she comes to her studio and finds it difficult to start painting, she simply does something else first, like stretching canvases. She does this to activate herself and working with canvases doesn’t feel so hard. And once she’s activated it’s easier to start painting.

That’s exactly what it’s like for me. I start by doing something else that doesn’t feel as hard and then it’s easier to move on to actually writing and producing texts. One thing that always works for me is reading and being inspired by others’ ideas. But I also have to make sure to leave time and space for thinking, so often a walk will work too. When I walk I think and I might even formulate sentences in my head, which I then just write down when I get back to my computer.

When I’m walking it might look like I’m procrastinating or not working, but working is actually exactly what my mind is doing. I find that I’m much more productive if I actually walk away from my computer and do something else rather than force myself to sit there and stare at the screen and get nothing done.

This is one of the reasons I like working in the privacy of my home. No one questions my commitment or methods when it looks like I’m not working.

But today is Friday and soon it will be Christmas for those of us who celebrate that. I will be taking some days off and a break from thoughts about efficiency and productivity. Let’s all be a little less productive for a change during the holiday season. We’re worth it! Happy Holidays!

Colleagues are people too

I had lunch with a friend a couple of days ago and she told me about some weird stuff that had been going on where she works. Gossiping on a level that even school children would balk at. Kind of like when you say someone is acting like a four-year old but also know that a four-year old would know not to act that way.

We ended up having a lot to talk about. I have also experienced some pretty low behavior in places I have worked, and it made me wonder: what is it that makes people lose all sense of what is polite and civilized?

We are taught at an early age to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and sorry. When we are kids we learn that it is bad to be impolite, and that bullying and other unacceptable behavior will be punished. But then when we become adults and are put together in an organization where hierarchy, power, stress, and uncertainty play in, we suddenly somehow forget all these things. Or have we simply forgotten that also colleagues are people who deserve to be treated with respect?

This is obviously not the case in every work community, but I have witnessed more adverse behavior during my years of work than I can count. And to put it bluntly, it’s just plain rude.

Lately, when talking about my research, I’ve been asked what a manager should do to create a sustainable work environment that people won’t want to opt out of. There are a number of things of course that one can do to create places where people can work in ways that work for them. However, the first and most important place to start is simply to get to know the people you work with.

Now I’m not talking about team building exercises, I’m talking about really getting to know them. That means sitting down and having real conversations with the people in your team. Asking them about what is important to them, what they think about and, not to forget, how they are doing. This will help you understand where a person is coming from and why a person acts or reacts in a certain way.

But most importantly, it also builds trust. We tend to trust people we know – really know, not just think we know.

Besides, we all have a lot more going on in our lives than just work. Things that happen to us outside of work invariably affect us when we are at work, but often we aren’t exactly encouraged to bring those other parts of us with us to work. We sort of leave our other selves at the door. But being allowed to come to work as a whole person, and not just a worker, can make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of managers don’t seem to want to have conversations like that. Maybe they don’t want to make the time, or maybe they’re worried it might get difficult or ugly. Isn’t it then just better not to know? That answer is no. We need to also have the difficult conversations in order to be able to see each other for who we really are, and in order to make working environments humane.

But most important of all, we need to treat each other with respect. So, if you are one of those people who has forgotten that your colleagues are people too, dig deep down in your memory. What was that again that your mother (or father or anyone else who brought you up) taught you?

Book releases, ketchup and other stuff

It has been so hectic lately that I haven’t had the mental space to write this overdue blog post. I have a lot going on, and as usual it never rains it pours. This is also famously known as the ketchup effect; nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens, and then suddenly everything happens at once.

The main thing going on at the moment is the recent publication of the paperback version of my book Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles. I am so happy it is finally available in paperback. I have been waiting for this since the day the hardback was published. True to academic publishing routines, the hardback version is a so-called library version. In other words, an expensive book that most people aren’t willing to pay that much money for. However, the paperback is priced much more affordably and I am so excited that anyone and everyone who has expressed an interest will now be able to get a copy of their own. (It is also available in all the major online bookstores.)

However, my book is not only an academic book. It’s a book that anyone can read, and anyone should read. It’s filled with stories of real women, on real opting out and in journeys. These stories are intertwined with different societal aspects, debates, and phenomena to help us understand what opting out and in really is and how it affects us as individuals.

People have shown a lot of interest in my work ever since I set out on my own opting out and in journey, when I started doing research and collecting narratives. It makes me feel humbled, but also that what I am doing is worthwhile and important, and that – the feeling that I’m making a difference –has got to be the best feeling ever. To this day, my favorite thing is when people come up to me – friends, acquaintances, or strangers – and share with me their own opting out and in experiences. (To those who sometimes ask me: no, I will never tire of it!)

Because this paperback edition is so important to me, I decided to throw a book release to celebrate its publication. But just like everything else I do, I wanted to do it on my own terms. Instead of inviting speakers and commentators to speak during the event, I decided I want to make it my very own, and do it in a way that reflects me and my journey. I decided to make it a joint book release – art exhibit, because lately my painting has become an increasingly important part of my life and I see it becoming even more so as I continue my journey and navigate my future.

During the past year, my painting has become a second job of sorts, and although I at first felt I had to keep it separate from my research and that part of my life, I’m starting to realize that maybe there are more synergies than I first thought. The painting first felt like a good counter balance to my day job, however now I’ve realized that they also feed each other and are just different perspectives and forms of creative expression. Not only can they exist in harmony, they can also create a whole with countless possibilities that I can still only imagine.

So this book release – art exhibit is a direct reflection of me, what I do, and how I think. Symbolically it also marks another milestone on my journey, and I look forward to seeing where I will go next. Because the fact is, although we like making plans, life isn’t predetermined. You never really know what will happen.

The event will take place in Helsinki on September 24. If you are interested in attending, you can email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com for more information.

And if you’re interested in my art, you can follow me on Instagram: @ingrids_silk_painting

Opting on

During the summer, I spend as much time as possible with my family on an island in the beautiful Finnish archipelago. We love to go boating, and when you’re on a boat surrounded by little else but glittering waves, you really have a lot of time to think. And as I think, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that an academic career isn’t for me. It isn’t going to help me achieve what I have set out to do.

As many of you know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past few years. I came to academia from the business world and in a way, ever since I started working on my PhD, I’ve felt a bit like a tourist. Maybe it’s all the baggage I carry with me from years in business, but I’ve never really started feeling like a native academic.

Part of it is the system. The rigid structures and organizing in no way reflect the innovative, cutting edge research and thinking that goes on in academia, nor does it support the amazing work that researchers do. As a former management and leadership consultant, it is actually quite painful to see how unhappy and frustrated so many academics are due to appalling management and support systems and processes, as well as policies that just don’t support the nature of academic work.

But most of all I now clearly see how pursuing an academic career and everything that entails won’t enable me to do what it is that I really want to do. It won’t help me make an impact where I want to make it.

I want nothing less than to change the world. I want to help change organizational cultures and create work environments that are sustainable and where people can and do thrive. Publishing in academic journals is not going to help me do that. However, publishing on platforms that are accessible to practitioners and working directly with organizations is.

I had coffee a while ago with a person who contacted me through my blog – a fellow opt-outer (you can check out his blog here). We met up to talk about opting out and in and we had a very meaningful conversation. We talked about how opting out isn’t the same as dropping out, and that it’s cyclical. Once you’ve been through an opting out and in process, it sort of becomes a state of mind where you’re continuously evaluating and re-evaluating what you’re doing, what your terms are, and what’s important to you. He really hit the nail on it’s head when he said that as a term opting out is actually quite inadequate, that really it should be called opting on.

And that’s what I’m doing; I’m opting on. I’m not leaving academia completely, I still love doing research and I still want to be a part of the amazing work done by my academic colleagues (and I have a research project to finish). However I also want to do more hands-on work with organizations and use my research and knowledge to make a real difference in everyday lives. To do that, I need to opt on, and I feel really excited by the prospect of embarking on the next phase of my journey.