Bryce Covert has a really interesting piece on The Atlantic online about the so-called “ambition gap” in the workplace, the excuse so often trotted out to explain away the nagging gender wage gap: “When researchers have studied the ambition gap,” she writes, “they’ve discovered something peculiar: It’s not there. Women do ask for more. They just aren’t rewarded for it.”
The phrase “ambition gap” has always irritated me because it presumes something that’s not really about ambition. It’s about the fact that women often wind up doing things other than/in addition to dedicating themselves to their careers, and the assumption is that a) this is a choice & b) as a result, women don’t get to advance as men might — that’s not an “ambition” problem, that’s a “society-wide, institutionalized sexism” problem.
As it turns out, personally, I was happy to plan my professional life in a way that means I work part-time and am my children’s primary care-giver, but a) that’s me and b) that’s a luxury.
The fact is that my personal choice happens to dove-tail with American society’s expectations of women: If you’re a woman, no matter your circumstances, it’s your job to care for other people. If those people are your babies, your elderly parents, or your (presumably) adult and fully functional husband (who, presumably, you deeply want to acquire), it matters not — their well-being, good behavior, and pleasant appearance is on your shoulders; you, of course, are on your own. There’s a reason the phrase “mommy track” exists, but “daddy track” not so much.
At the same time (surprise!), we don’t actually value that role. We don’t help stay-at-home parents with, say, tax breaks and government-subsidized childcare training. We don’t provide government-subsidized support for care-givers of folks on home hospice care. We don’t, generally, say “Oh, don’t worry about that project, your family is more important.”
So I’ve always assumed that cultural and institutionalized sexism stand behind the “ambition” gap, but that said gap, and any impact it has on the pay gap, is real.
But no! It turns out that even when you account for all that, women get shafted at work:
[Research group] Catalyst has spent extensive time evaluating this issue. Its first report followed recent MBA graduates… to see how men and women fared.
Women’s first jobs out of school were at a lower level than men, and men had higher starting salaries, even when the number of years of experience, time since the MBA, industry, and geography were taken into account. Maybe men just start off more ambitious?
But they don’t. The findings held true even among men and women who aspired to the CEO or senior executive level. It also held true for men and women who didn’t have children. It’s not the mommy track. It’s something else.
What’s that something else? Is it choice of major? Choice of occupation? Early-life family requirements? It seems not. A recent study from AAUW looked at men and women one year out of college and found a 7% gender earnings gap, even when school selectivity, grades, choice of major, choice of occupation, and hours-worked were taken into account.
Even among extraordinarily ambitious and successful workers of both genders, Catalyst research found a gap. They followed full-time workers who didn’t take breaks for education or family reasons or self employment. The mommy-trackers were left out. But the gap didn’t go away: Twice as many of the most proactive men advanced to a senior executive level as similar women. The report concludes, “[W]hen women used the same career advancement strategies as men, they advanced less.”
Here’s one finding that particularly cleared my sinuses:
One study told 184 managers that they would have a limited pot of money to hand out in raises to employees with identical skills and responsibilities. The managers that were told they’d have to negotiate gave men two-and-a-half times the amount in raises that they gave to women before anyone sat down. This meant that the men didn’t even need to negotiate for higher pay, while women were already at a disadvantage when they tried to bargain up….
There’s a lot going on here, where “here” = all of American society, a collective that encompasses 312 million people. I can’t help but feel that in a country in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics can categorize “child-care problems” as a “non-economic” reason for part-time work, the approach to resolving the pay gap will have to be decidedly multi-pronged.
But no matter how many prongs we bring to bear, this is the bottom-line: “Assuming that women have themselves to blame for the wage gap is an easy conclusion, because it doesn’t ask us to think [about] the treatment of women in the workplace.”
Only when we’re honest about the bias actually faced by 50% of humanity will we begin to be able to address it.
UPDATE: Hello new readers! I’m so happy to have you. Please note that I’ve added a comment below in which I link to a variety of other posts that might be of interest. I hope they are, and please do feel free to have a look around, read, comment, etc, and so on. I can also be followed on Twitter, if you do that sort of thing: @emilylhauser and, I blog regularly on The Daily Beast for Open Zion, a blog that deals with matters Israel/Palestine (it’s absolutely not your average discussion of the Middle East!).