5.01.2009

Biological Inequality

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.

16 comments:

Mars Girl said...

So, you know, they should maybe give you higher pay if you prove to them that you dont intend to have children... Like if I gave an employer the medical record showing that I had my tubes tied (which I have not at this point in my life, but am considering it for the near future as my mom is uncomfortable about all the years of my life that I've spent on the pill and she wont stop harrassing me about cancer risks involved--secretly, I am wondering if she's really craving grandmotherhood and wants me to get pregnant with or without a man). But anyway. An employer really could put more trust in a career woman who has stated that she does not intend to ever have children and has backed it up with the procedure to disable her uterus' functionality.

Of course, I am sure a lot of other feminists would scream at me for the injustice in that... But I consider myself just as reliable as a man (barring cycling or skiing accidents that I may incur). Because I dont want children. And I'm ready to prove it by permanently removing the possibility of it happening... And I really WOULD be willing to prove it to an employer if it meant it would help advance me...

cathryn said...

Mars Girl - Yeah, it's sticky. It's unfair that women who choose to become mothers are penalized (it's not our fault that we're the only gender with the ability to have a baby), and it's also unfair that women who DO NOT choose to become mothers are penalized (just because we have a uterus doesn't mean we're going to use it). It's like we can't win.

Mars Girl said...

Yeah, I agree. I didnt mean to suggest that only I should get advantages and benefits because I dont intend to use my uterus... I guess I'm just agreeing with you about us being a variable in business. I kind of think, though, that maybe before being placed on some sort of project of importance, we should internally consider whether or not it's the right time to have a baby, if we are career-minded. Maybe professional women need to hold their horses on the whole thing, if possible. We are safely reproductive through our 30s. So, you would think that a girl who loves her career might take certain things into consideration before deciding to get pregnant if she wants to advance in the company. Kind of like how we plan vacations. I try to avoid scheduling mine for times when I know a project is going to be coming due and I know they will need me during that time because the course of the project will be in flux (and, believe it or not, the tech writer must be there to write in any last minute changes... and someone up top actually DOES care about that). So I try to schedule my vacation for a time when I'm not leaving my company in a lerch. And I'm the planning type who generally schedules vacations like a year or two in advanced, believe it or not. I rarely spontaneously schedule a vacation a month out from when I intend to go. With the exception of the occasion day or two here or there that I take... So, I wonder, if you're a professionally-minded person, could you not plot your biological desires accordingly?

Of course, I know that doesnt always work great. Project deadlines move, attempts to get pregnant fail the first couple of times. I'm not perfect at scheduling my vacation time, either, because a lot of times--especially in the software industry--project deadlines slip and then the planned vacation turns out to happen right in the middle of a big release...

cathryn said...

Exactly. I don't begrudge anyone's right to reproduce, BUT once you are aware of it, you should plan accordingly and maybe decline a position that could compromise the project if something should happen. Because I'm thinking it would probably be frowned upon if a partner, upon hearing the news that one of their employees is pregnant, pulled them from a leadership position.

Choices like that suck and no, in fact, We CAN'T (responsibly) Do It All.

Frank said...

A society that truly is feminist (by your definition) would not have women alter themselves to suit society, rather society would alter itself to accomodate female rhythms in life (pregnancy, breast feeding, etc).

But there are stil hard choices and there is only so much time in a day.

Personally, I don't want a job where I have to give my life to it, unless it happens to be something that I see as my life's calling in the first place. A lot of jobs really want people who make it clear that work is their #1 priority in life--to the point where they are willing to put things on hold for their job and drop anything and everything to be available at a moment's notice. Not me, so I live with it. I won't be climbing a ladder since you can't do both.

I think it is sad in some ways since I think I do a heck of a better job that some of my co-workers, but it is clear that I have a life outside of work and that has stood in the way of moving up. The higher ups really want to have people who don't have lives, they get real uncomfortable if you have other priorities in life, even if the quality of your work is actually better than others. I've seen it.

I think this is where a lot of the data that women make less money than men comes from. From what I have read, you are right that the gap between men and women for euqal pay and equal work has narrowed to the point of being virtually gone. The real gap is that women in general make less than men in general, but that is a blend of all different careers. Since more women take time off to raise kids, or work part-time, or work in more "traditional" female-led fields (women are nurses, men are doctors, etc), that is where most of the gap is between incomes.

Mars Girl said...

But, Frank, if you had a job in which you were doing something you were more passionate about, incorporating it into you life as extra time would be less of an issue to cuase you to separate "home" from "work." In my case, I might become a grief therapist (though these days I'm starting to give up on that idea). Grief therapy would involve more of an "on call" situation requiring more of my free time. But I might gladly give that up for a job I actually enjoy going to. I think some people might have careers like this that they enjoy whole-heartedly. I think in that case I'd be willing to sacrifice some of my personal life doings for the career... I guess when I talk about the career-minded woman in my posts, I am thinking of someone who really does love her career whole-heartedly who might really be willing to put off a pregnancy to coincide with better timing at her job so that she can manuever her way up the ladder too.

Though, I dont know. I guess I am not sure I believe that a woman can have it all--the career and the children. I think at some point you sacrifice one in expense of the other because you cant give either a half-assed effort. Certainly not with child-rearing. I think if you decide to have kids, you've gotta go at that full-tilt because it's a young life that needs a certain amount of your attention in order to grow up feeling nurtured and loved. So to do that, you have to probably let go of some of your career aspirations unfortunately. Unless you've got a super-cool husband like I did who said he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad... =) But then, the roles are just reversed--you're bringing home the bacon, Dad is staying home as Mr. Mom, and you feel as though you missed out on something of the child's life, like my dad has admitted to feeling on multiple occasions... Someone always ends up feeling some regret somewhere.

boty said...

I'm not a fan of babies or children in general and pregnant women annoy me....BUT it seems that the people that decided to put a pregnant woman in a leadership type of position for this projest so close to her due date are fucking morons! Why not put a NON-PREGNANT woman in this particular position...does that not make sense?

To me it's blatantly insulting!! It's like putting someone in a marathon who is scheduled for knee replacement close to race time....

Not only have the powers that made this decision created all this brew-ha ha, but they have succeeded in making other women question their liability to the firm!!!!!

The women who "choose" career over children get a bad rep, and the women who choose a family over career get a bad rep, and those that try to do both get fucked up the ass without lube too...so basically things are still designed to suit the male needs in a work/home structure...surprise surprise.

The only logical solution is test-tube babies and robot nannies..."I love you cold metal robotic arm"

I hate everybody.

Mars Girl said...

*LOL* I dont know you, Boty, but I think I love you. In a sisterly sort of way, though.

Daniel said...

Sadly, it is true that women will always be paid less than men in the work place because of biology and culture. It may not be fair but it is reaasonable from the employers' point of view.

I agree with Bethany that your employer was foolish to put her and the company in this position....less about the robot nanny. I am rarely a fan of management since they are generally clowns.

Being a big old liberal I should probably not say this but if I have two identical candidates for a job except one was a man and the other a woman, I would hire the man everytime because of the biology risk. Is that bad?

mom said...

When management runs a tight ship with little wiggle room they should always, always have a reliable Plan B to fall back on, that's why they make the bigger bucks. Sounds like this particular incident was caused by poor thought processes from the beginning. I agree with Boty, some moron made a bad judgment call by putting a near due pregnant woman in charge.

Employers must realize the benefits of having women employees, too. Women are much better at multi tasking, they are more creative, better problem solvers, can handle delicate situations with clients better than men, they are more loyal to the company than men, geez, i could go on and on but, well you get the point.

boty said...

Daniel: I'm going to kick you in the testicles...it may not be fair, but it seems reasonable from my point of view.

cathryn said...

From a purely economic point of view, it IS reasonable to hire the person who poses the least liability. That was my point.

If you have two job candidates who are equal in every way and you can only hire one, are you going to hire the one with the higher biological risk? Of course not.

As for management basically demoting an employee upon finding out she's pregnant....while it seems reasonable from a productive view, I can't really blame them for not wanting to go there. That could've potentially opened up a whole can of lawsuit worms.

Instead, the pregnant woman should've went to management and said, "hey, I'm pregnant, and I may not be able to see this project through to the end. It may be beneficial to everyone for someone else to be project coordinator". If you choose to procreate, take responsibility for your choice.

Alison said...

I reeeally don't want to live in a world where I'd be expected to show evidence of tubal ligation in order to advance my career. That just really skeeves me out. Don't go there, MG.

Mars Girl said...

Ha ha. I was just being dramatic. However, I bet if the employer KNEW you were a young unmarried single womam, it might sway him to hire you over a woman he knew to be married... I know they arent supposed to ask those questions, but they could just look at the ring finger on your left hand... and then they'd probably make assumptions about you based on that. They notice that I'm 34 and not married, it might give me an advantage for awhile.

Frank said...

But don't you all see where this leads us? Who is the bigger risk, the person wiling to work 40 hours or the one willing to work 45? or the one willing to work 50? 60? 80? 100??

This is where we all get together and say we're tired of competing with each other where we all end up losing. On May 5th, this might be the time to think about such things. I'm not a huge advocate of socialism, but there is something to be said about collective bargaining where all the people in a given industry band together to hold out for a higher standard of LIVING. Or we can all just be isolated individuals who work ourselves to death trying to keep up with the Jones'.

Maybe all employers should give maternity leave to all employees--you either use it to give birth or you use it for something else, but since everyone gets the same deal you can't complain. I'm sure there would be problems with that, but it might be a starting point for discussion (family medical leave act, anyone?).

It's not just pregnant woman who lose in our current system, I think we all lose. Why do Europeans have 1 month of vacation time every year off? Because society as a whole demands it. We're too busy trying to out-compete with Jones next door we slit our own throats and ended up with nada.

Mars Girl said...

If we didnt work all these hours nothing would ever get done. BELIEVE me. The people at every company I've ever worked for cant seem to ever get ANY project out on time, whether or not their are pregnant women on the team. It seems to me that people dont make good use of their time while at work to get stuff done. There's always something: kid's sick, gotta go home; doctor's appointments, etc etc. etc. No one makes their job a priority (maybe cuz not enough people have found something they are passionate about). If we worked harder when we were at work, we wouldnt need to work over time to get a project out on time. But unfortunately no one focuses on their job while they are at.

Says the girl who's reading and answering blogs at work right now...