Evidently, the first time I spoke at the conference, I made a lot of women angry. They wanted me to rail against the injustice of the system. But the facts were, and still are, complicated. Women pay women less than they pay men. Women pay themselves less than men pay themselves when they found their own businesses.That’s inequality for sure, but where does it begin and end? The point I made is that it’s social conditioning; that women are conditioned to expect, and therefore ask for less — that changing legislation won’t change that social conditioning and that it’s up to us to change ourselves. Reading it again, the speech is a bit tough and a lot oversimplified.
What’s clear now, in hindsight and after national and global events that were unthinkable in the 90s when women thought we were making progress, is that the question I was asked, and was gullible enough to answer, was the wrong question.
Reframing — questioning the assumptions that define a problem as the real upstream cause and not a symptom — is a core design principle, and while it is habitual in my work, it can be more difficult to remember and apply to one’s life. Why women make less money than men is a symptom of something far more fundamental. It can only lead to some data and debate; not to any actionable truth.
It is no doubt still true that women make less than men, that women pay themselves less. But the questions that haunt me today include why some men are so threatened by the potential of women that they deny them an education (hey, Taliban) or will do anything to keep them out of political office (hey, American men)? Why do some people still believe that the world is a zero-sum game and that you have to prevent someone else from having agency in order to protect your own (hey everyone)?
I offer for inspiration the women of Iceland. In 1972, they went on strike to protest gender inequality. It is one of the best examples of social design —ever—and of how to be inclusive in an effort to change social dynamics. I wrote about it here.
It’s important to mention that my life is filled with wonderful men who love, respect and support women. I am grateful for each and every one of them. They know that nothing good can come from subjugating women or any other group of people who in the end are more alike than different. Conflating money with equality and agency is what we do in America; it’s the infection we’ve spread around the world. And it will be the death of us.
Here’s an article that Linda Decker wrote for AIGA in 2015 about my original speech, and below is an article I wrote directly after the national conference, for Communication Arts Magazine.
FROM THE 1990s: WHAT WOMEN ARE WORTH (Communication Arts Magazine)
I was asked to speak at the AIGA National Conference in Chicago about the fact that women make less money than men. It’s an endless, emotional subject colored by centuries of opinions. The following, nevertheless, is one more point of view.
I believe that money and power will not come through legislation, although that may give women the confidence to act. It will come through an understanding of how our behavior has been conditioned by stereotypes, how our expectation levels are set and of the responsibility we share in setting those expectations.
The time has come for this issue of men versus women to end. Too much has been said and written, and too much money has been made by those who stand to proﬁt from analyzing the gender gap. The most honest and useful belief we can hold is that the battle we have to fight is an individual one, hav- ing nothing to do with gender.
It is undeniably true that women make less money than men, and money is the measurable symbol of equality. Women earn less than men at every level of education. The gap is as large for college graduates as for workers who have not finished high school. Both men and women employers pay their female subordinates roughly $12,000 less than their male subordinates with similar positions. That’s a fascinating statistic. Women pay women less than they pay men.
One third of all new businesses today are started by women, and surprisingly, among the self-em- ployed, the gap in hourly earnings is slightly larger. That means that even when women have their own companies, they pay themselves less than men pay themselves.
The facts about the wage gap are relatively uncontroversial, but there’s a lot of disagreement as to why. The first inclination is to blame employers. But if employers had the power to control wages, why wouldn’t they drive down the wages of men? They have to face the issues of supply and demand and they pay—to men and to women—as little as they can while remaining competitive in the marketplace. And they respond to whoever applies the most pressure.
Recommended for You
A second definition of discrimination is job segregation; the assumption that women are more suited to some jobs than others, or to more menial tasks rather than managerial. It’s called sex roll differentiation, and there are a million theories as to why it exists.
The assumption that we’re not the same has existed forever. Within the original myths of almost every culture, there seems to be a preference for dichotomous thinking which, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1945, “Casts men as the norm and women as the ‘other’, possessing traits opposite to men. Not surprisingly, the fact that men have been in power has had an effect on the study of sexual differences. First of all, women have not been considered important enough to study, and what study has been done has been directed towards discovering proof of women’s biological inferiority. Men have simply been protecting their turf.
We have been considered less intelligent because of our smaller brain size, and unable to perform several tasks simultaneously because of less brain lateralization. We are believed to be more controlled by our hormones than are men. Edgar Berman, who was medical advisor to the late vice president, Hubert Humphrey, warned against women’s participation in public affairs because of their “raging hormones,” and United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick reported that some White House critics resisted her appointment because of her female “temperament.”
We are believed to be genetically fixed as homemakers and breeders of children through the evolution of hunter/gatherer societies. We are also believed to be more “social” and more suggestible, to have lower self-esteem, to excel over men at repetitive tasks, to be less analytical, less motivated towards achievement and more auditorally oriented rather than visually.
None of these things is true. What is true, however, is that we are conditioned to behave in certain ways regarded as appropriate to our gender, by our parents, our teachers and by society.
The overwhelming evidence that’s come to light in the last decade indicates that gender differentiation is best explained as a social construction rooted in hierarchy, not in biology. This premise, that our behavior and expectations are conditioned by a social construction that protects a hierarchy is an interesting one, and provides perhaps the most believable explanation for different behavior and expectation levels. It also provides a logic for these differences. What’s more, in addition to society conditioning behavior to ﬁt a hierarchy, where we fall in that hierarchy conditions our behavior.
It’s been proven that jobs affect behavior tremendously. Recent research found a direct link between the pace, complexity or routinization of a job, and the person’s commitment, intellectual flexibility, moral perspective and competence. In other words, a person’s interest and competence turns out to be linked to exposure to new situations and opportunities to learn and advance.
We actually condition ourselves as we are being conditioned to ﬁt this hierarchy. It’s been discovered that people do “emotion work” on themselves to create feelings that are appropriate to their role in society. Also that through anticipatory socialization, men condition themselves to have masculine feelings, and women to have feminine feelings.
Nora Ephron wrote about this self-fulfilling prophecy: “I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly, incompetent I found myself becoming. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself . . . I discovered that even now, men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative, and certainly less self-centered than they are themselves; so I generally obliged them . . . I did not particularly want to be good at reversing cars, and did not in the least mind being patronized by illiterate garage men.”
This is a critical point. Not only do we allow ourselves to be stereotyped, we adjust our behavior to ﬁt those stereotypes, and the cultural views of what’s appropriate.
These stereotypes don’t stop with Nora Ephron’s innocent incompetencies. They set limitations on what we think we can accomplish, what we expect and what we think we’re worth.
But all stereotypes disintegrate when we look at individuals. The fact of the matter is that more men than women do certain things, and behave in certain ways, and vice versa. But in reality, the world just doesn’t split neatly down that line. What differences there are between men and women turn out to be much smaller than the differences between rich and poor, or between managers of small and large companies or old and new companies. They may even be smaller than the differences between old and young people, or those with professional parents and those with working-class parents.
The concepts of male and female cause the sorting and skewing of perceptions by focusing on differences rather than similarities. Often these distinctions are based on very slim evidence.
It was Coleridge’s idea that a truly great mind is androgynous; one that rises above the traps of gender. One that sees truth and possibility and isn’t blinded by defensiveness. And Virginia Woolf believed that in order to write well, “to find the perfect sentence,” you have to put yourself aside. That great art cannot be achieved through stereotypical thinking.
We create our own opportunities. We must accept responsibility for doing that. And we must accept that we are just as responsible for not creating opportunities. For everyone, it’s an individual battle. No organization, and no legislation will change enough people. What will help is for each of us to work individually to prove the stereotypes wrong. To ourselves and to everyone else.