#WageWeek: change starts with conversation

04.28.2017

Think about what it means to be a man.

What words come to mind?

What about what it means to be a woman?

These were the first questions my group tackled during our #WageWeek conversation at Land Grant Brewing Company in Franklinton. I signed up to attend this event, organized by the Women’s Fund, because I’m concerned about the wage gap and I wanted to learn more. But instead of diving right into facts and statistics, we started with this simple exercise.

At least, it seemed simple on the surface. We called out words, and our group leader wrote them down in the “man box” and the “woman box.” Pretty quickly, a pattern emerged — one that typically goes unnoticed in our day to day lives, but shocked us into silence when we put it all on paper.

Can you guess what went into the man box? Words like “breadwinner,” “negotiator,” “aggressive,” and “unemotional.” And in the woman box? Words like “pretty,” “quiet,” “nurturing,” and “non-confrontational.” The point of the exercise was to illuminate our implicit biases about gender roles. Boy, did it.

I’m a feminist, and consider myself fairly well-educated about the social problems women face. Even so, it’s sometimes hard to identify the subtle influence of implicit bias in day-to-day life. I’ve often asked myself, was that comment sexist, or am I too sensitive? Do I earn less than my male colleagues because of discrimination or just because of circumstance?

Here’s an example. Not long after our college graduation, my male friend and I were both hired to work at the same company. We went to the same school, received the same degree and we both had experience working on the student newspaper. Over the next two years, he was promoted twice. Meanwhile, I stayed in the same entry level role.

To be fair, my friend was deserving of every promotion he received. His team worked with a bigger client, which led to more opportunity for him. And I was too shy and inexperienced to negotiate a raise for myself. So, was that sexism or circumstance? I don’t believe my former employer discriminated against me, and I’m not accusing anyone of nefarious behavior. But looking back, I’ve wondered if implicit gender bias (my own included) played a role in our different career paths.

After attending the #WageWeek conversation, I think it did play a role. After our opening exercise, we broke into small groups for further discussion prompted by question cards in the Gender By Us™ toolkit. During our wide-ranging conversation, I realized that we can’t separate the gender pay gap from our cultural stereotypes about women. After all, when a little girl is praised for her looks and chided for being bossy, is it any wonder that she struggles to negotiate her salary when she grows up?

Issues like the pay gap are often more complicated than direct, clear-cut discrimination. I believe that’s partly why they’re so stubborn. Solving the pay gap will take more than just conversation; substantive policy change is also needed. But looking at our unconscious assumptions about gender is the best place to start a conversation about women, work and wages. If we can’t talk about the effect of gender bias on both men and women, how can we begin to address it? The #WageWeek event helped me become more aware of my own biases, and galvanized me to challenge gender bias in my own life moving forward.

Written by Ivy Lamb

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