I need to start this post off by affirming that I am a feminist in every sense of the word. And while I realize the personal meaning of the word “feminist” can vary widely from individual to individual, I generally assume that when one claims a feminist stance, they believe fundamentally in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
In college, my feminist student organization would have a bake sale every year to 1.) raise funds for a local women's shelter and 2.) raise awareness on the discrepancy of pay between males and females. So, if we were selling a dozen cookies for a dollar to men, women would only be charged 80 cents (or whatever the average difference was at that time) for the same dozen cookies to help illustrate the disparity. Of course, we got a lot of flack for this little stunt every year (in addition to our many other awareness raising activities on campus), not only from men, but from women as well.
And I always wondered how people couldn’t or wouldn’t see the simplicity of the situation. Equal Pay for Equal Work! How hard of a concept is that!? Why should equally qualified and talented women be paid any less for doing the same exact work as a man? It seemed like a no-brainer.
Fast forward 11 or 12 years.
I work in a male dominated professional field. And although I am aware of it, I don’t typically think much of it. There are certainly more female architects today than there were 20 years ago, and in my personal experience, the blatant prejudices you encounter as a female architect are few and far between. In my office, we are asked not to discuss our salaries with our co-workers, so I have no idea what the compensation comparison is for women and men in my office, but I have no reason to believe there is any gender discrimination going on.
In my firm of 28 architects, 4 of us are women.
Last Friday, one of those women was put on bed rest for the next 6 weeks (or until she goes into delivery). This woman is the project coordinator on the project that I’m working on. The same project that is on a fast track schedule to begin with and recently had an entire month cut out of the timeline in order to meet the CON deadline. The same project that is already causing me to spend less time at my new house and more time in my office.
Believe it or not, this one inconveniently timed bed rest thing, puts a strain on nearly our entire office. Part of it is simply bad timing. Nevertheless, people have to be shuffled, gaps have to be filled, extra hours have to be put in, all because one woman chose to procreate. On top of that, as project coordinator, she was in a position of responsibility and leadership. She has critical information about the project that few other people have. And now she is suddenly and unexpectedly gone.
Okay, so our lead architect on the project, a male, could've been hit by a car last week and put in the hospital to recover for 6 weeks and we'd be in a similar situation.
But here's the thing, when an employer hires a woman, there is a high risk involved that she will get pregnant (a higher risk than a man getting hit by a car). From the employer's perspective, nothing good can come of this. First, there's the chance that there will be complications and she will be put on bed rest (check!). Then, she is legally allowed to take up to four months off of work after the birth of her child while her position remains empty and open until her return. Then, if she decides to be a stay-at-home mother instead of returning to the work force, the company has lost a valuable employee in whom they've invested a lot of time and money. And, even if she does decide to return to work after having a baby, she is inevitably going to require special allowances. She will most likely be taking time off more frequently because no longer will her career be her first priority. Working the late hours that is often necessary in our line of work, will no longer be an option for her.
This boogers things up mightily.
And yes, I realize we did not choose to be the sole child-bearers on the planet, but we are. And yes, I realize that some men take paternity leave, but it's not nearly as common as maternity leave. And it's even less common for a man to quit his job after the birth of his child. And unheard of for a man to take time out of his work day to pump breast milk.
So, it kinda sucks for women in fields of work that are not "mother-friendly". Unless you are a sole practitioner, architects rarely are able to work from home. We are brought up in a "studio culture" and it is a firmly ingrained tradition from which few are able to deviate. Architects also do not "job share" or work part time hours. The nature of the work simply doesn't allow that kind of convenience.
So, it's understandable that employers in such fields have to take the child-bearing risk into consideration. Women, while equal in talent and dedication to men, become a greater liability if/when they decide to have a kid.
It's completely plausible that when the next big project comes around, and the partners are looking to put a design team together, they think twice about putting someone like me in a position of leadership and responsibility. Someone who is 33 (a year younger than my co-worker who is now on bed-rest), and about to get married. Even if I get paid the same as the men in my office, opportunities for advancement may be fewer, because consciously or unconsciously, I am considered a liability due to my functioning uterus.
While I want it to be as simple as Equal Pay for Equal Work, I fear the female reproductive ability is the monkey wrench in that equation.