Brand building through storytelling

The wage gap: is the glass ceiling really to blame?

When I was starting out as a magazine writer in the early 80s, Chatelaine assigned me a story called “Are high school guidance counselors failing our daughters?” The editors had already written the title, and of course they already knew the answer. My task was to prove that schools, by condoning girls’ well-documented flight from science and math, were steering a whole generation of young women away from lucrative careers. Until women could compete with men for jobs in engineering, they’d be stuck fetching coffee or wiping toddlers’ runny noses. They’d be making about 65 cents for every dollar earned by men.

What to do? It seemed so obvious. Keep the girls in algebra. Give them saws instead of sewing machines. Connect them with role models—happy, successful women who were equally adept with blueprints and baby bottles. Women had just as much brain power as men; what they didn’t have was the right skill set. We could fix that and usher in the age of equality. With encouragement and training (and husbands who would take on have the housework), surely women would follow the money.

I fervently believed this, even though I hadn’t been following the money myself. I majored in English, with a smattering of history and French. I’ve never set foot in a physics lab and have a primal horror of math. Sometime in my thirties, while writing a Chatelaine story about the brain, I read just enough neuroscience to become enthralled by the journalistic possibilities for longer, more probing reports from the frontiers of research. But without a better academic grounding, I couldn’t pursue this budding interest. So I returned to my longstanding focus on telling stories about people’s hidden lives—how we become ourselves and what we find or lose along the way.

I suspect I would have made this choice no matter what I’d studied in school—that for better and worse, I’m more drawn to the inner world than the outer one. I chose to work for women’s magazines, as both a writer and an editor-in-chief, because readers kept telling me, in wonderfully concrete terms, how my work had affected their sense of themselves. “Your article inspired me to leave an abusive husband,” they might say. Or “Because of your article, I’ve started therapy for chronic depression.” I’ve made forays into other kinds of journalism (freelancing for business magazines, editing for a newsmagazine), but the work didn’t offer the intense personal connection that I’d come to love.

Even so, I’d occasionally ponder the options I’d closed off by writing for women about women’s intimate concerns. Why did hand-written notes from readers matter more to me than my writer’s fee, or my story’s prospects for winning an award? If I’d been born 20 years later, would I have followed the money? I thought of myself as a modern woman. In my heart of hearts, was I an old-fashioned chump, hooked on pleasing others to the point that I sold myself short?

On the face of it, much has changed since my career-building years. Today’s young women are beating the pants off men on campus—and not just in English or social work, either. They’re studying medicine, science and engineering as never before. They enter the job market better prepared than men, yet overall they’re still earning less and not climbing as high. According to Catalyst, an organization that tracks women’s progress in the workplace, we won’t see gender parity at the CEO level for a good 40 years. Meanwhile some of the best and brightest women are giving up six-figure paycheques to pursue other priorities—especially time with their families. What gives?

Susan C3Susan Pinker, a clinical psychologist and a professor at McGill University, proposes a controversial answer: biology predisposes women to value people over things and internal rewards over extrinsic ones. In The Sexual Paradox, a book that’s creating international buzz, she argues that the push to get women into lab coats and hard hats is not only misguided, but downright pernicious because it assumes that traditionally “male” choices are the only ones worth making and that money is the yardstick of success. Pinker cites research showing that women derive more emotional satisfaction from their work than men do. So why should teaching kindergarten be considered a lesser career choice than designing bridges?

The notion that women and men are neurologically different has a long and dishonourable history. In the nineteenth century, it was thought that higher education would render women unfit for motherhood-the brain supposedly competed with the uterus for energy and nutrients (Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain the grisly details of this and other theories in their blistering classic For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women). Because the self-appointed guardians of female virtue have invoked biology to keep women down, the entire subject of innate sex differences is still taboo in some circles. Pinker encountered a number of female scientists who refused to discuss their own research on the topic. That didn’t stop her from supporting her thesis with a formidable range of studies from various disciplines—economics, education, social psychology and neurobiology. It’s the breadth of Pinker’s analysis, coupled with her gifts as an interviewer and storyteller with a sharp eye for real-world dilemmas, that make this book so compelling.

I haven’t yet finished The Sexual Paradox, and so far I don’t agree with all of Pinker’s conclusions—especially when it comes to the infamous “glass ceiling.” Pinker essentially waves it off, yet my female friends in corporate life—many at the top of their professions—say they often feel like interlopers in a world constructed by men. What they want is freedom to be their best selves, unconstrained by inflexible rules about how a woman should behave.

The stereotypes are still around—just look at the attacks on Hillary Clinton, who has been lambasted by other women for sticking with Bill when the supposedly modern thing to do is ditch the bastard. In their haste to accuse her of opportunism or wimpiness, her critics don’t consider the reason most longstanding couples stay married—a powerful emotional bond that is a part of their very being. I believe she loves him. And as I reflect on Susan Pinker’s book, I realize some women love working in day care centres, never mind my own journalistic advice that they could earn a lot doing something else, like fixing computers. Is the problem that these women are choosing the wrong careers, or that we as a society undervalue the ones they are choosing?

Okay, back to the next chapter of The Sexual Paradox. I’ll have more to say about it (and Hillary, too) in upcoming posts.


Posted by Rona

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