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Apr 10 2012

On Gender, Work, Hoops, and Equitable Wages

By now you may have heard that Wisconsin Republicans fired another volley in their war on women last week.

On Thursday, with little fanfare, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill repealing the state’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in state courts. In doing so, he demonstrated that our political battles over women’s rights aren’t just about sex and reproduction—they extend to every aspect of women’s lives.

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Wisconsin’s law was similar to many others—indeed, almost every state in the country has anti-discrimination laws that augment federal legislation. “It’s often easier, faster, and cheaper to pursue a claim of discrimination in state court than in federal court,” says Linda Meric, national director of 9to5, an organization devoted to working-women’s issues. “The law is different in each state, but Wisconsin was certainly in the mainstream in having a law that provided remedies for employees who experienced discrimination on the job.”

The state senator who introduced the bill to repeal the law, Glenn Grothman, has had a few choice words to say on the topic, explaining why no such law could really be needed.

Whatever gaps exist, he insists, stem from women’s decision to prioritize childrearing over their careers. “Take a hypothetical husband and wife who are both lawyers,” he says. “But the husband is working 50 or 60 hours a week, going all out, making 200 grand a year. The woman takes time off, raises kids, is not go go go. Now they’re 50 years old. The husband is making 200 grand a year, the woman is making 40 grand a year. It wasn’t discrimination. There was a different sense of urgency in each person.”

This nonsense, along with Grothman’s assertion, “You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious”, has been handled well elsewhere, including the Daily Beast article that reported it. Lots of people have challenged the assumptions about division of household duties. Plenty of evidence has been provided to show that discrimination in pay is much more than the senator’s simple assertions make it out to be.

So I don’t need to go into any of that, which is good. I want to talk about that 50- to 60-hour work week instead. Why? Because the person working that schedule isn’t getting anything done. As a recent article by Sara Robinson points out, there is a reason the 40-hour work week was a standard for decades.

The most essential thing to know about the 40-hour work-week is that, while it was the unions that pushed it, business leaders ultimately went along with it because their own data convinced them this was a solid, hard-nosed business decision.

Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over — across many business sectors in many countries — business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable.

More productive. Not less. Not the same. More productive, and at lower wages, since people were mostly paid by the hour then. We have many more salaried positions now, but the equation hasn’t changed. And the shift away from manual labor has only made the need for reasonable hours more acute.

In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. It sounds strange, but if you’re a knowledge worker, the truth of this may become clear if you think about your own typical work day. Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.

That means that all this talk about paying women less because they don’t put in long hours is nothing more than an excuse to discriminate against more productive employees. What? You want to make the claim that women aren’t more productive in their shorter hours? Well, the general studies are against you. Now you need real, individual productivity data, which is what you should be basing your pay decisions on anyway.

This is much like the situation with salary negotiation that I’ve talked about previously. The ability to negotiate a salary almost never has anything to do with job duties or job performance. It’s a meaningless shibboleth marking the business class that does nothing but disadvantage those who come from outside or are trained in the ways of another culture. It accomplishes nothing but gatekeeping.

Salary negotiation, the keeping of unproductive hours, office bonhomie, and “fitting in”–all of these are things that reward “people like us” and penalize those who are different. They are proxies for direct discrimination that still accomplish all the same things. Saying that women or any other marginalized group gets paid less by your company only because they don’t do some or all of those things is saying that you maintain a discriminatory workplace, plain and simple. It’s saying that you base pay decisions on something other than productivity.

If you really want pay to be equitable, you will find ways to cut these factors out of your decision-making. If you don’t…well, I’d like to tell you that’s going to be a problem for you, but there’s a big group of Republicans working very hard to make sure it isn’t.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Robert

    I’m a man and nothing is more frustrating to me than the belief that you need to put in 50+ hours to get ahead. I’ve worked for companies that have pushed for overtime when things were behind schedule, first at ten hours a week, then up to twenty, because we still weren’t making deadlines. In the end we pushed through at about the same time we would have if we just stayed at 40.

    Burnout and lack of motivation are killers, yet it seems companies have to learn this lesson again and again.

    Additionally letting workers stay more than 40 hours can mask actual labor deficiencies you have. If you really need 5 people but you only have 4, well you are losing moeny to overtime, and you aren’t getting the best productivity out of your workers, and most likely your employees are disgruntled.

  2. 2
    WilloNyx

    Of course it is our own fault we get paid less. It is our own fault that everything else happens to us. Why not pay too? I would give a more thoughtful response but I am about to start working one of my two jobs because I am less productive than a man. /sarcasm

  3. 3
    eric

    What you say about total hours is also true about companies offering different shifts and work from home. Private companies don’t offer telecommuting and 9/80 or 4/10 shifts “despite” those things negatively impacting worker productivity; they offer them after doing pilot studies and confirming that they don’t negatively impact productivity.

    Granted, not every business is the same and not every one can use these sorts of flexible work arrangements. But to the extent that the private sector does use them, they further undermine Mr. Grothman’s supposed point because they make childrearing (by one parent or two) less impactful on job productivity.

  4. 4
    karmakin

    Agree a million times.

    Although I have to say that productivity as well is something that’s increasingly impossible to measure as well, and can create misguided incentives that are harmful to both the people AND the business.

    The more integrated that a workplace is the less that productivity can be accurately judged.

  5. 5
    interrobang

    What the business world calls “productivity” is oftentimes actually a metric for how willing workers are to be overworked for the same amount of money (ie. exploited), and is probably actually a measure of general social desperation.

    I find it very telling that Grothman thinks men just care about money…just because. Why do you think men might be more motivated to care about money than women, Mr. Grothman? Surely it couldn’t be the relentless bombardment of cultural messages saying that men are only worth anything if they make/have a lot of money, and that men are supposed to “support their families,” and their very notions of self-worth are judged thereby; or that women should ideally be financially dependent on men, or that any paid work done by a woman is automatically more expendable than a man’s, et cetera?

  6. 6
    scenario

    Many companies seem to fall into a trap. During the rush season, they offer a lot of overtime to get stuff done quicker without hiring and training new people they won’t need a month from now. Since it will only be for a few weeks, people work the overtime to get a little extra money. It works well in the short term.

    But then the company grows and needs a few more workers and they look back to the rush season and figure they’ll save money by working their current people longer rather than hiring new people. What worked pretty well for two weeks fails badly after a few months. Instead of realizing that they don’t have enough workers, they double down and start pressuring workers to work harder. Workers productivity drops and by now even if they hire new people the current workers are angry and exhausted.

    One of the problems is that it is difficult to measure productivity accurately in many jobs. Employers frequently pick a few benchmarks and judge productivity by these. Workers who can manipulate their statistics do better than workers who actually are more productive. Working hours is a statistic that workers can control, up to a point.

    I read a book a few years ago about this and they talked about two social workers. Social worker A worked long hours and helped a lot of people but only did a fair job of documenting it. Social worker B did half the work that A did but played the system by filling out a lot of forms that documented all of the work he did. Worker A’s job was in jeopardy even though she actually got a lot more done than B did.

    It is easy to discriminate when you’re not actually measuring anything meaningful. Most companies really have no idea who their most productive workers are. They tend to rely on meaningless statistics and tradition. This makes it easy for them to discriminate against women even when they think they are being totally fair.

  7. 7
    D. C. Sessions

    You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair.

    That butt in a chair may not be producing much (if not actually doing harm), but the fact that he’s there rather than (for instance) at his kids’ Little League game is worth a lot to the boss.

  8. 8
    HumanisticJones

    Another article to put in front of my coworkers the next time I hear “The time for unions is gone! We have the labor reform laws, we have the safety regulations, we have the discrimination policies. There’s nothing to keep fighting about because it’s not like anyone thinks they can get away with pulling those laws down!” This is the Red Queen in full effect, we have to keep running just to stay in one place as long as regressives like that are in office.

  9. 9
    KathyO

    Isn’t the whole pay inequality thing about women who get paid less for doing the exact same job? In other words, the hypothetical about the man who’s go, go, go and the woman who’s taking afternoons off to take the kids to soccer is an irrelevant distraction. We’re really talking about the woman who’s just as go, go, go but still gets paid only 70 cents to the man’s dollar.

  10. 10
    smrnda

    The whole idea of men ‘prioritizing’ money and women ‘prioritizing’ family is nonsense given the influence of social expectations in shaping how people behave.

    And on the maybe 6 hours of productive work for knowledge workers, I’m pretty sure that’s true for almost everyone. The difference is in many careers, advancing is more like a game of accumulating social capital at the workplace. For the lawyer example, if we take the couple who are attorneys, is the man actually working the 10 more hours than his wife does a week, or is he out playing golf with the senior partners at the firm?

    Advancement in some careers might be about competence, but in many it’s just as much about schmoozing the right people, making the right connections and getting ‘groomed’ to be the next fat cat. It’s a game of power and status, which is why having a guy’s ass in a chair instead of at his kids little league game (as was stated above) is worth a lot to the boss – it shows that the worker will do something that is absolutely stupid that confirms his commitment to the company and his acceptance of the status quo, so that if you advance the guy he’ll make sure that a system based not on logic or reason but on power, domination and control stays in effect.

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    Kathy, there is inequality even when we look at in the terms that business sets, but that’s no reason not to question those terms.

  12. 12
    D. C. Sessions

    It’s a game of power and status, which is why having a guy’s ass in a chair instead of at his kids little league game (as was stated above) is worth a lot to the boss – it shows that the worker will do something that is absolutely stupid that confirms his commitment to the company and his acceptance of the status quo

    Never overlook the fact that being in the chair is an act of submission — it’s worth a lot to the boss purely because being able to do that to subordinates is a kick. It’s a cousin to a lot of sexual harassment: not about sex, but about domination.

    Some cases are clearer than others: I came close to being fired once when my boss insisted that I spend the day after Thanksgiving (unpaid) in the office. There was a push on to get some product out by the end of the month, so the hourly production staff were working (paid, holiday) overtime. $BOSS wanted me in there even though there wasn’t anything for me to contribute — he wanted “presence,” a show of solidarity. Of course, he wasn’t there.

    This was in part, I suspect, a reprisal for my having taken a week off earlier that month when my newborns were in NICU (and of course for the delivery itself, which I’d saved vacation for.)

    Bottom line: Don’t discount the possibility that lower pay is, in some instances, a next-best to sexual domination of female employees.

  1. 13
    But Men Work More Hours » Almost Diamonds

    [...] is a fair-sized gap, assuming that more hours worked equals more productivity. (It doesn’t.) However, it doesn’t come close to accounting for all work. That is only paid work. If you [...]

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