The gender pay gap won’t budge as long as we keep talking about ‘merit’

The gender pay gap won't budge as long as we keep talking about 'merit' thumbnail

Happy Equal Pay Day! Today represents the number of extra days women have to work after the end of the financial year in order to earn the same amount that men earn in twelve months.

Currently, the equal pay gap is 15.3 per cent, which means that on average women are earning $251.20 less per week than the man sitting in the cubicle next to them. That’s $13,000 per year, people.

Think of what you could do with an extra 13,000 bucks a year for doing nothing extra. Maybe you’d spend it on that holiday you’d been dreaming about but can’t afford. Or you’d replace the fridge that’s been leaking all year, or afford school uniforms and new shoes without financial hardship. Perhaps it’s the difference between being able to afford to leave your abusive relationship or not.

When you look at the cumulative effect, the gender pay gap can also mean the difference between living out our retirement above the poverty line or sleeping in the back of our cars. On average women retire with half as much superannuation as men, and the fastest growing homeless demographic is elderly women.

But hang on a minute… aren’t workplaces level playing fields now? Surely pay rates have nothing to do with dangly bits and everything to do with the quality of your work.

Ah yes, merit. It’s the standard — and up to this point — knock-out argument against calls for equal pay and conditions.

And it may sound reasonable. But contrary to popular belief, merit is not the solution to inequality, it’s actually part of the problem. It obscures more than it reveals.

On this Equal Pay Day, let’s dispel a few myths about merit.

Employers like to crow about their commitment to equality by telling the world that they employ and promote on merit. And who is deemed to be meritorious?

Well, first of all, it’s those who have demonstrated their commitment to their career with unbroken career paths, having worked on the difficult projects, that require late nights, early mornings and required travel to far-flung destinations at the drop a hat.

And let’s not forget those all-important networks with influential (and almost exclusively male) leaders in industry and government, which have been cultivated from the school cricket pitch, followed by university colleges, and then cemented with MCG and SCG member-only functions.

Around now, you may have a mental picture of who’s meritorious. And I’m willing to bet that it’s not a 40-something woman who’s had three kids and taken maternity leave.

Of course, that’s not to say men can’t take time out of the workforce. It’s just that when they do, it’s interpreted differently.

For example, a consultant at a large consulting company recently told me about how he was promoted after taking a year off. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. He was promoted after taking a year off.

He was burnt out and on the verge of leaving his company so his boss told him to take a 12 month break before making a final decision.

He whisked off to Argentina to “find himself”, learning The Tango, perfecting his yoga and meditating on his life goals. On his return, he was praised — and promoted — for having the courage and self-insight to take the time to assess his values.

You know another great way to get a 12-month crash course in self-insight and values? Maternity leave. But mothers are lucky if they’ve still got a job at the end of it, let alone a promotion.

Arguments about merit often quietly paper over the original inequalities. They give the impression that since formal barriers to participation in the workplace have been removed, we’re all now equal.

But just because we’ve gotten rid of formal barriers to participation doesn’t mean that we’ve magically erased the effects of decades or centuries of discrimination.

Often more informal barriers remain in place, and are more resistant to change because we’ve tricked ourselves into pretending they’re no longer there.

That is, until they rear their heads. For example, just last month a male radio hosttold New Zealand Labour leader Jacinda Ardern that he had a right to know her baby plans. What employer, journalist or constituent has ever claimed that they have a right to know the family plans of a man?

Women in paid work who have children are regularly asked about who is looking after their kids. The implication being that it should be them – and not the father of their children. Former Prime Minister John Howard even said out loud that women have a “limited capacity” in politics because of their caring duties.

Before women even get to show their “merit”, they are first required to spend time and energy justifying their right to even be in the workplace. Men, on the other hand are just presumed to be the native species.

If we lived in a true meritocracy, then you’d expect that the personal qualities and workplace behaviours valued in men would be equally valued in women.

Those deemed to be meretricious typically exhibit traits like passion, strong leadership, and ambition. So long as you’re a man.

A woman exhibiting those exact same qualities is “too emotional”, “bossy”, and a “ball-breaking bitch”.

Men can be complete sociopaths, yet still be valued and celebrated for being effective.

Women with power on the other hand are almost universally demonised.

It’s telling that female politicians right across the political spectrum are called “witches”, such as: Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Bronwyn Bishop, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Hilary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher.

None of this should come as a surprise. When the term “meritocracy” was coined by British Labour MP Michael Young in a satirical book in the 1950s, it was a warning rather than a triumph of equality.

In the meritocratic society imagined by Young, the principle of merit was a way for the aristocracy to maintain their power in the face of a rising middle class. Merit provided a principle to ensure their power and privilege was maintained, concealing the fact that the rich could still buy the best education and exclude the working classes from it.

It seemed fair, but it hid real inequalities and injustices.

If we continue to distract ourselves with “merit” at the expense of real gender equality, we will be commemorating Equal Pay Day for many more years to come.

Daily Life

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