Some years ago, after I had been promoted into a more senior role, I discovered that I was earning $20 000 less than my predecessor. Admittedly, the guy before me was about ten years my senior, but he had been squeezed out of the role because he wasn't performing. While his extra grey hairs gave him a dignified air, they hadn’t made him any better at the job.
Instead of getting angry about my lower pay, I allowed it to reinforce my self-doubt. I took it as proof that I was promoted as an act of charity, a mistake or as a last resort. I didn’t dare raise the issue of the gender pay gap because I was too busy being grateful. I was lucky that my company was being ‘nice’ to me, especially since I was, well, a girl.
Very early in life I had internalised the message that boys were better than girls. Boys got more attention and had more fun while girls sat on the sidelines applauding and hoping to be noticed. I accepted this inequality as a fact of life because I had learned that boys were witty, extroverted, entitled and allowed to eat the extra piece of cake.
If I hadn’t been socialised to be a handmaiden of the patriarchy — a collaborator in my own oppression — perhaps I would have responded differently to the twenty grand I missed out on because I didn’t have a penis.
I now realise that I might have fared better if I’d acted less like a good girl and more like a monkey. Research by Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal and biologist Sarah Brosnan has found that Capuchin monkeys have an innate sense of fairness and entitlement.
In experiments where Capuchins sitting in neighbouring cages were unequally rewarded — a cucumber versus a grape — for carrying out a task, the Capuchin who had been underpaid with cucumber rejected the inferior reward, throwing it at the experimenter.
I’m not suggesting I should have walked into my boss’s office and hurled my lunch at him. A little more impulse control than the primate is probably best. But I could have done with some of that monkey’s unfailing self-belief and refusal to accept the scraps out of life.
But the gender pay gap still exists today across many industries. In July 2012 The Age reported that three years after graduating, men out-earned women in healthcare by $14,500 a year; in management and commerce by $7000; in education by $2000; and, in law by $2600 a year.
Not only does this gap widen as people become more senior, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the gap between men and women’s earnings actually widened by 0.8 of a percentage point since the last time the gap was measured.
Change is, however, on the way. Last Thursday the Workplace Gender Equality Act was passed by the Senate. The Act aims to close the 17.5 per cent gender pay gap that separates women from men’s income and remove other forms of gender inequality in the workplace.
But all the legislation in the world won’t help us if we don’t believe we’re entitled to equal treatment.
With the wisdom of hindsight, extra years and a lot of feminist literature, I would have handled that situation differently. I would have walked calmly into my bosses office and asked him if he believed I was capable of delivering on all of the requirements of the job.
When he assured me that I could, I would have interrupted his management mumbo jumbo pep talk and asked him why then was he only paying me for a fraction of the requirements, and then sat in silence as he tried to justify the sexism.
I’ve used this approach in a number of salary negotiations since. Sometime it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But even when it didn’t, I still called bullshit on the patriarchy, chipping away at the entrenched inequality within the company. And, more importantly, I reinforced to myself that I deserved it.
Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something and Over It: What happens when you wake up and don’t want to go to work. Ever again. (Random House) www.kaseyedwards.com