The wage gap, of course, is the gap between men and women. We don’t talk about the wage gap between, say, black men and white men because the causes are so visible. Like, most black boys do not grow up with a father, and in some cities 50% of black men have been in prison.
But we talk about the wage gap between men and women like it is some Escher puzzle that we can solve through infinite stories in the media.
But in fact, the wage gap between men and women is as big a red herring as the gap between black and white men. Women don’t care about workplace stuff and men don’t care about home stuff.
I know that’s a stereotype, a cliche. But it’s a cliche for a reason. I’m right.
The issue is that if you take a man and woman who have equal qualifications at work and you add kids to the mix, the woman’s salary goes down as the man’s goes up. We know that this is by choice. Each gender typically makes choices that move their salary one way or the other.
Here’s how to understand those choices:
Unmarried men almost always say they want to share household duties equally. However this is so completely not how it turns out that evolutionary psychologist David Buss says the equality thing is merely a mating call. Men can’t be in a relationship today unless they say they want to assume household duties.
I actually think men do want to do half. But they want to do half of what they think needs doing. So, for example, changing the sheets on the kids’ beds does not matter to a guy. The sheets don’t have poop on them, so they’re clean. If the sheets have poop on them, the guy has no trouble changing them. He does it immediately.
My brother’s friend, who is a banker married to a stay-at-home wife and surely does nothing around the house but surely thinks he does, suggests that couples use a chess clock to keep track of household contributions. He says you announce that you are doing a household chore, and you ask your spouse if it is something they care about. If the answer is yes, you hit the clock while you’re doing the chore.
This experiment would make things look equal. And you can take this beyond household chores. For example, when a mom drops a kid off at a new friend’s house, the mom stops and talks to the parent and sniffs out the house. The dad says hello and leaves.
Yes, that’s a stereotype, but there is a ream of hard data to show that on balance, this is true.
Which brings me to March Madness. In high school I played NCAA brackets because I wanted to hang out with the boys who did that. It was a way to get them to pay attention to me. When I worked on the trading floor, the betting pools are so entrenched in the culture that there are arbitrage signs for when trading stops to deal with the betting pools. During the NCAA playoffs, if you ask for a bid in the S&P pit, miming a basketball shot means that the trading volume is reallly low because the traders are cleaning up their brackets.
The New York Times reports that women work more hours at the office than men do. There’s a problem with that statistic too, though. Men think they are working at work just like they think they are doing chores at home. Most of work is social. So women are putting their heads down and knocking out their to-do lists while men are running betting pools.
The problem with the data about who works harder at the office is who defines what work is—the same problem is at home, defining housework. At the office, the most important work is socializing. It’s the stuff that comes from emotional intelligence and makes you an office politics star. The real work at work is knowing what people need and helping them get it so they give you what you need.
The gap between men and women working at work starts in school. Girls work so much harder at getting good grades than boys do that it’s easier to get into college if you’re a boy. And girls work so much harder at doing what they are told to do in college that more girls graduate than boys. The problem is that the work world doesn’t revolve around your grades. The work world relies on the same skills boys have been developing the whole time they have been getting sent to the principal’s office.
So what do we do with this information?
1. Stop treating men and women the same. There’s a great letter in the Princeton alumni magazine to women in Princeton: get married in college, which is where the pickings are better. I like the letter because it’s a warning to the next generation: don’t be mislead by older people telling you that men and women can do the same work: at home, in the office, or in school. In each stage of life, men and women care about different things. [Note: Princeton removed the link from their site. But there is conversation all over the Internet about it anyway. Here's a discussion at NPR.]
2. Understand the different stages of life. For women, when they turn 30, it’s time to have kids if they want them. Men can start a new career when they’re 30. Women can’t. You can’t start two new careers at once, and having a kid is starting a new career for women. Not men.
3. Accept that this is a problem inherent in school. School teaches that linear progression is important. And that high achievement through ranking and competition is important. Using your intelligence to gain influence and or money is important. None of these things happen when you scale back your career to have kids. None of these things happen when your husband thinks the bathroom is clean and you don’t. School teaches girls that the things women value and the choices women make are largely not valuable. At least not as valuable as ranking and influence and money and achievement.
The real gap here is between the values we teach kids in school and the values we reward in the work world. We really do value what we choose to spend time doing. Women make choices that are not a linear progression from what we learn in school. Which means that at age 30, there is a crisis: women have been high performers their whole lives and they realize, often, that they don’t care enough about that contest to keep winning at it.
The real workplace revolution is not happening at work. Women today reject our chronically unbending and incredibly demanding corporate culture. Most women don’t want to get past the glass ceiling.
Which means that the real revolution begins in school, where we have to start teaching kids that there is a wide range of paths in adult life, and many of them have nothing to do with book knowledge and high IQ. Until we start doing this, women will always feel regret and disappointment when they stop being high achievers in order to make decisions more consistent with their values.