Saturday 23 February 2019

Gender pay gap: Why are we still talking about this?

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I don’t think many people had probably heard of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, 74, before last Thursday. Well, that all changed when the MEP, who represents the remote region of Silesia in Poland, stood up at the European Parliament during a debate on the gender pay gap in Europe to claim that women “must” earn less than men at the workplace because they are “weaker, smaller and less intelligent”. A case of a man from a remote region, with a truly remote mind

His comments caused understandable outrage but – having thought about it – I think this kind of backwoods mentality is quite symptomatic of the times we live in, when instead of going forward and treating people as people, irrespective of gender (or anything else) it seems to have become all the rage to be insulting, hateful and disrespectful towards those who are different, and that includes women. I have always wondered, though, what is it about certain men which makes them look down on women in this way? No matter which way I look at it, I cannot fathom why paying women the same salary as a man for the same work is such an inconceivable concept.

I have spoken to men about this issue, and they agree with me that there must be an underlying sense of insecurity which grips some men who think this way. They feel threatened, I was told, by the idea that a woman can be their intellectual equal. It disrupts their view of the world as they know it and they would much prefer if everything remained the same as it has always been for generations. Me, Tarzan – You, Jane. Me, Mr Big Shot – You, My Insubordinate.

It seems odd to be still discussing this in the year 2017, but if you think that Mr Korwin-Mikke is a one-off case, let me direct your gaze to the glitz of Hollywood, where actresses are still fighting for the right to be paid as much as their male colleagues. So much so, that cast members of the sitcom Big Bang Theory have offered to take a pay cut in order to ensure that two women in the cast who joined the show later, would get a pay rise, since salary re-negotiations are due to start next week:

“Variety reports that Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch are getting paid approximately $200,000 per episode for the show’s 10th season, while the original five cast members get paid $1 million. The original cast members reportedly agreed to take a $100,000 pay cut in order to free up $500,000 for Bialik and Rauch to divide per episode. That would bring them to about $450,000 per episode — a significant raise but still not equal to their co-stars. “

And who can forget the hacked Sony emails in 2014, which really brought the whole issue of how actors are paid so much more than actresses to public attention? As actress Jennifer Lawrence wrote in an essay, “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid…I didn’t get mad at Sony,” she wrote. “I got mad at myself…I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”

But it was not just the talent which was being discriminated against as, according to the pay spreadsheets of top management which were also leaked, “…the employees of Sony Pictures with the highest annual rates appear to be nearly entirely white men.”

If there is such imbalance in one of the highest paid industries, one can just imagine what happens in more lowly jobs. It boggles the mind that even in a country like the US, women are still paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Especially when one considers that one of the nominated films for this year’s Oscars, Hidden Figures dealt with this issue of gender inequality which took place (wait for it) in the 60s. The women in the film had to face a double whammy of discrimination: not only were they brilliant mathematicians who happened to be women, but they also happened to be black, and for the (white) men in the film to come to terms with the fact that the very future of America’s space programme depended on these ladies was probably a very bitter pill to swallow. You could see the astonishment and resentment etched in many of their faces, as these women strode in and solved the mathematical problems which were stumping the men. Thankfully, even back then, there were enough open-minded men who did not let their misplaced pride get in the way, and who accepted help from these unexpected quarters. The rest is NASA history.

Of course, one thing which the film did not delve into was how much these women were actually getting paid when compared to the men. I think it is safe to say that it was much, much less, especially since the Head Engineer regularly removed the name of one of the mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, from the reports she submitted, so that he could get sole credit for the work. I had to laugh wryly at that scene, knowing full well just how often such things still happen to this day.

The fact that we are still taking about these issues; the fact that women still have to push and fight for what should be naturally theirs – equal pay for equal work – is
a result of a combination of factors. Throughout almost every field and sector, the people at the top who have the power to decide pay cheques still tend to be predominately male, and predominately of an older generation, so the dynamics are really not that different from what we saw in the film. And the other factor also lies within a culture which still frowns if a women is perceived as being too assertive and too demanding. How many women are able to walk into a boardroom meeting or a job interview and negotiate a good pay packet for themselves, valuing their own worth enough to know how much they should be paid for their skills, qualifications and competence? Granted, it is not an easy thing to do, especially as it is almost deemed as “big-headed” if one asks for more than a certain amount.

But unless you ask for that salary which you know you deserve, you most certainly will never get it. Meanwhile, let us just hope that men like that Polish MEP from a remote village are the last of a disappearing breed.

Powered by