Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Odd Question of the Workplace Pay Gap Argument

I am not going to start this off by babbling the figures that usually get babbled when the discussion turns to the pay gap between men and women in the workplace.  You know, women make x cents for every dollar a man makes, yadda yadda yadda.

I'm not babbling that, because the sources are so unreliable there is no point to trying to quantify it.  The only relevant data would be comparisons of identically qualified men and women in the identical job, and that's pretty hard to establish, because that identity -- age, experience, education -- is not going to be "identical enough" to rationalize pay gaps.

Let me give you a story.  Many years ago, I was the director of computer operations for a CPA firm with four locations.  I had two ladies working for me, and among other things, they processed the payroll.  That meant that they knew what everyone in the firm was making, and with a couple of fairly gossipy young ladies involved, needless to say, they often discussed comparative pay.

Word of that got to the firm's senior partner, the one whose name was on the building.  Now, I'm not exactly sure what I would have done to shut them up, but I have to give the man credit for creativity.  He called the two ladies into his office and told them to go get the latest payroll and bring it back to him, along with their boss (me).

The senior partner said this to them: "I am going to do this once and only once with you, in the presence of your manager.  I'm going to answer whatever you want to ask about why people are paid differently from others here.  And when I'm done, you are never again going to raise questions about salaries of people at the firm.  Got it?"

He then went over all the questions that two of them had about why person X was making more than person Y.  The senior partner, of course, knew quite well why the pay was what it was, and why this bookkeeper was making more than that one, and what college courses this one was taking and what complimentary client letters that one over there had gotten.  Sure enough, that shut up the two clerks for good.

I mention this not just because it is a good story, but because both the two clerks and every single employee about whom the two asked a question was female.  All the accountants and bookkeepers they were concerned about were women.

So that came to mind as I was watching some news program decrying the gender pay gap and spouting poorly-sourced salary figures and the like.  Then I saw that some TV personality had quit when she found out she was getting less -- a lot less -- than the male she was replacing on that program.

That's when something struck me, a notion I had had in the back of my mind but only now was coming into clarity.

Do you recall any of the pieces that I've done about the tendency of employers, as soon as they saw that Obama was going to put in rules that made hiring prohibitively expensive, to try to get three better, more skilled people to do the work of four?  The concept was that it was the baseline "per-employee" cost, in effort, cost, and risk of lawsuit, that had gotten high, so it was better, even for the same price, to have fewer, better employees.

That same notion was at play here.  If men are actually making more money in the same jobs, with the same background, as women, then a decision had to have been made in each case.  Why wouldn't they hire women and pay them less? 

Do you follow?  If men are actually making more than the women who replace them, or whom they replace, that means that employers are willing to pay men more to do the same job, even though it costs them higher labor costs.

The more pervasive that practice is (unequal pay), the more evidence there is that in the eyes of employers, they get more productivity out of males than females.  Otherwise, well, why would they pay men more?  It wouldn't make sense.

If I had a business anymore, I would be trying to save money everywhere I could, and labor costs would be right up there on top.  So again, why would I pay more to have a male do the job if I could have a female do it and presumably, if the stats are not completely erroneous, do it cheaper?

I don't actually know where this notion is going.  I believe that people should be paid what they are worth, that is, based on the value they bring to the employer, and not anything else other than the consideration the employer affords.  I'm worth what my clients think I am, not what I think I am, so I try to keep my rate a little lower than my perceived value, so I keep getting work.

But no one seems to be taking the gender pay gap to side B, and asking not why women are paid less, assuming they are, but why employers with a bottom line choose to pay more to men, when they could theoretically pay women less.  One inference, of course, is that employers do so because they think they will, for whatever reason, get more productivity from men, and are willing to pay for it.

I don't know.  In my profession, there is no real capability gap and no real pay gap, by gender.  And a lot of firms in the business are larger and, therefore, have controls over pay that compare to civil service, where you can't discriminate based on anything, including of course, ability.

Well, fun thought to consider on a Tuesday.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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