Chromosomes Shouldn’t Determine Career or Compensation

The very fact that we discuss labor and employment in terms of ‘traditional’ and
‘non-traditional’ when referring to gender belies an inherent inequity.

It continues to amaze, baffle, and – to be honest – infuriate me that in 2013 we still must have a discussion about pay equality for men and women. On its face, this issue is so simple. People should receive equal pay for equal work. Period.

But earnings inequality between men and women is more subtle, and more insidious, than a simple surface view that focuses solely on wages can explain.

It is true that not so long ago, women doing exactly the same job as men were paid less – and in many cases, far less – than their male peers. On this front, great progress has been made. For the most part, women working alongside men in the same job are now making the same wage. That part of the fairness equation has been (nearly) balanced.

Why, then, does there continue to be a significant male-female income disparity in the United States? Why are women’s weekly earnings still only 81¢ to men’s $1? The answer is because the systemic problem for women in the workplace is more than one of wage inequality. It is one of career inequality – an inequality spawned and perpetuated by a lack of enrichment, a lack of encouragement, and a lack of engagement.


The global economy of our century is based in technology, and technology is supported by science, engineering, and mathematics. Recognizing this, many schools have begun to focus on STEM courses and curricula, and this is admirable. What is not admirable is the implied, and sometimes overt, gender stereotyping in these classrooms. Young men are expected to study science to become doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, while young women are often directed to be nurses, medical assistants, dental hygienists, and veterinary technicians. Young men interested in aviation are encouraged to become engineers and pilots; young women to become flight attendants. Young men are pushed to be mathematicians, physicists, and accountants; young women to be cashiers, claims adjusters, and payroll clerks.

Before everyone gets riled and stops reading, let me say unequivocally that there is nothing ‘lesser’ about nurses, or cashiers, or payroll clerks, or dental hygienists. That is not the point I’m making. The point is that the above careers should be equally presented to both young men and women without assumption or stereotype. This is about equality of enrichment, not ranking the value of one occupation over another.

What of those people for whom college isn’t the best option? We must present all trades to everyone, and not assume that men will want to be carpenters and mechanics and plumbers, and that women will only want to study medical billing or court reporting or cosmetology. The very fact that we discuss labor and employment in terms of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ when referring to gender belies an inherent inequity. It’s not time for the paradigm to be merely shifted, it’s time for it to be completely reinvented.


In order for us to achieve employment equity, we must encourage young women to take risks, to follow their passions, and to do it on their own terms. This, again, requires us to overthrow the prevailing career model and replace it with one which more appreciates the differing ambitions, approaches, and attitudes of women in the workforce. We must insist that women are seen as assertive and not bitchy. We must recognize that they can be career-focused without being bad spouses, partners, and mothers, and that flexible work hours and locations lead to increased productivity.

We also need more role models and mentors. Young women need women role models to whom they can look up and be inspired. Young women also need mentors – both male and female – to support their success and ensure their representation at all levels of the workforce.


It is not enough for employers to simply recruit talented women. They must engage them and ensure that the promotion pipeline works for them as well as for their male counterparts. Both the white collar and blue collar sectors have great room for improvement:

$$$    57% of all college degrees in 2010 were awarded to women, yet less than 35% of middle and upper management roles are held by women.

$$$   Women, with or without college degrees, are 300% more likely to hold a clerical or administrative position compared to their male counterparts.

$$$   47% of law students are women, as are 47% of first- and second-year legal associates, yet women represent only 15% of equity partners in law firms.

$$$   Women represent 65% of the service industry, but less than 20% of the skilled trades.

We have seen tremendous progress, and we have much work yet to do. By recognizing the talents of women, enriching them with education, encouraging them with empathy, and engaging them with exposure to all possible career pathways, we can create a level playing field for everyone.

Government, unions, business, and academia all have a role – and it’s up to all of us to do our part to eliminate the earnings gap, and to retire the concept of ‘non-traditional’ careers based on gender. I can think of no better way to honor women’s history month than to send these inequities into the history books.

Published March 12, 2013

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