Saturday, August 09, 2008

Does Equality Pay Its Bills?

Big question. When you pass by equality trainwrecks on the internets, you sometimes see a blind faith in the free market to solve all our problems. I mean, the free market (which exists, honest) being the bastion of efficiency it is, if a problem still exists it must be because there's an economic upside to it, right? If action films with female leads were profitable, there'd be tons of them, but there aren't because it's just not profitable. If women's work was really as valuable as men's work, employers wouldn't discriminate against women, would they?

This faith seems to underlie a lot of the outright disbelief you sometimes meet when you talk to people about equal pay or media sexism. It's basically saying that the desire to make a profit is so great it must override the desire to be sexist, so sexism can't be occurring at the expense of profit, and any further attempts to fight sexism will cause economic harm.

FSF recently linked to a series of articles by Jennifer Kesler about how this blind faith applies wrt the Bechdel Test. One of these directly asks Why Discriminate If It Doesn't Profit?
What tipped me off was that whenever film students pointed out how movies/shows for, by or about women had indeed profited, film professionals wouldn’t hear it. Those movies/shows were exceptions! Or it was really the alien/Terminator/Hannibal Lechter people wanted to see, not Ripley, Connor or Starling. Etc. It couldn’t be that people were actually happy to see movies/shows for, by or about women, because that was impossible - end of argument.

...people who claim to worship profit above all else sometimes actually worship what they want to believe is profitable.

Looking at the inflation-adjusted all-time box office, many of the top names are films that had a specific appeal to female audiences; Gone With The Wind, Titanic, The Sound Of Music, Doctor Zhivago. Three of these four were made a rather long time ago.

I'm not sold on Kelsey's reasoning simply because it relies on pathologising individuals; see her earlier post, Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not To Pass The Bechdel Test:
I concluded Hollywood was was dominated by perpetual pre-adolescent boys making the movies they wanted to see, and using the “target audience” - a construct based on partial truths and twisted math - to perpetuate their own desires.

I find it hard to believe that mere individuals can keep that shit running as long as they do, but does anyone have a better theory? It's important, this. Because the phenomenon goes beyond Hollywood and infests the real world.

Last year, Slate's Ray Fishman declared 'It Takes a fail to thank its female leader, no matter how good she is':
Rural Indians are learning firsthand what it's like to live under female leadership as a result of a 1991 law that restricted one-third of village council elections to female candidates. The villagers' experiences are analyzed by economists Esther Duflo and Petia Topalova in a recent unpublished study. Using opinion surveys and data on local "public goods"—like schools, roads, and water pumps—Duflo and Topalova find that the villages headed by women invested in more services that benefited the entire community than did those with gender-neutral elections, nearly all of which were won by men. But as the opinion polls showed, for all their effectiveness, the women's governance was literally a thankless effort, with the new leaders getting lower approval ratings than their male counterparts.

[...] They were also less corrupt—villagers with female-headed councils were 25 percent less likely to report having to pay bribes to access basic services like getting ration cards or receiving medical attention.

It's like Hollywood; however well the women perform, it doesn't register with the people who care. (Except that US cinema audiences seem to approve plenty). This really is sexism as a quantifiable pathology, and it merrily flies in the face of any desire for material gain; women suck, no matter how much they've improved your local governance.

Then there's a straightforward headline from Firms With More Women on Boards Perform Better Than Those That Don’t.
During the four-year span of the reporting for the study, Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women on their boards saw equity returns that were 53 percent higher than those companies with the fewest number of women on their boards.

I strongly doubt that either this or the India survey demonstrate any female superiority when it comes to governance; rather, they represent the replacing of mediocre men with brilliant women who in other circumstances are locked out of high places. But the question's still there - if female board members have such a marked effect on profits, why are there so few of them?

If hiring women is basically a way of getting free money, why are so many companies scared of the idea?

When talking about the pay gap, I tend to link to this: the story of the UK's largest ever equal pay settlement:
Early last year, 1,600 women, all of them health workers at two Cumbrian hospitals, won the biggest ever equal pay deal: a total of £300m. At a time when the pay gap between men and women is actually growing, the settlement should have sparked a clamour for equality. Instead, there has since been an eerie silence. The story of how the women, underpaid for years, spurned an offer of £1.5m compensation and achieved £300m, all from one health authority, has been mysteriously buried, as if it were an embarrassment. They sense a fear of "mutually assured destruction" wafting around the headquarters of their union, Unison, which represents more than a million public service workers: a feeling that the settlement was too huge, and the ramifications of it just too enormous - what would happen if it triggered equal pay claims across the whole of the public sector?

[...] The claim was possible because of "equal value", a concept contained in a European directive announced during a late sitting in the Commons 20 years ago by a reluctant, and drunk, employment minister, Alan Clark. It allows different jobs to be compared for skill, complexity and responsibility; it focuses on the work, not the job. In detail, the claim translated the gothic arithmetic and arcane patois of industrial relations into the everyday life of men and women: everything, from bonus, to pension, to the length of the working week, to a working life. "It took a while to convince some of them that what they did was not only of equal value to a man, but more important," says Doyle.

A job evaluation expert, Sue Hastings, assessed the Cumbria dossier and reported that the cases were a golden equal pay opportunity for "exactly the people who ought to get it" - nurses who had been undergraded for decades, cleaners, telephonists and sterile services staff, who prepare instruments for surgery and who had been stuck on the same grade as washers-up since the health service was founded. Doyle had found men willing to stand as comparators: a wall-washer earning £3,000 a year more - and working 104 fewer hours a year - than a seamstress and sterile services staff; a plumber earning more than a nurse; a specialised nurse on a cancer ward, at the top of her scale, earning £8,000 a year less than a plant maintenance man; a nurse on £9,000 less than an engineer.

My suspicion is that the fear of equal pay claims - as in Hollywood - is entirely real; equal pay for equal work means that men will have to take home less, one way or another. Councils in the UK - who finally implemented their equal pay agreements in 2006 - complained that they need central government assistance in order to pay women what their work was really worth. Boo fucking hoo; progressive taxation (as if that existed) passes money from wealthier men to poorer women, cry me a river. Hollywood? Would probably get more money overall if it stopped failing so often. But less of it would go to men. And that would somehow be so threatening it's worth paying to make it go away.

How far does the threat go? Well, the NYT is calling bullshit on the different ways we frame men at home vs. women at home here:

But when men in their prime working years drop out of the workforce we don’t say they’ve gone home to be with their kids.

We say they’re unemployed.

It goes back to families and parenting. It usually does.


Nora said...

I think it must be recognized that there is a lot of sexism that is unconscious; so much so that even women don't notice it.
As someone who attended an all-girls high school, I became extremely aware very quickly of how much unseen sexism existed in the classroom. Girls in my school were much more opinionated, talked in class, debated with teachers about the subject matter.This never happened when I was in a co-ed school, and is unfortunately a trend I see repeated now that I am in college. And further more, it takes people aback--men, women, students, and professors--when I do speak out with conviction in a class. It is profoundly disappointing to me.

thene said...

Nora - there's a number of studies (unfortunately I don't think any have been done in the last ten years) that indicate that boys get favourable treatment in schools; more teacher attention, not so much criticism for interrupting, that sort of thing. Amp has a good post on this with lots of good information, and you might like to comment there yourself.

That said, I attended a state-run co-ed grammar school in the UK (ie. no fees, but you had to take an exam to get in, at the age of 11), and I didn't notice this trend - maybe because (for reasons I couldn't tell you - possibly just poor manners) I've never felt the slightest pressure to keep my trap shut in class myself. I've never noticed anyone be taken aback by that. Maybe it's a bigger problem in the USA than in the UK - though I'm pretty unobservant so maybe it was all happening while I wasn't looking.

Thinking back, I'm certain that boys talked more than girls in science classes - but I took the higher of the two levels of science available, where boys outnumbered girls (ditto in sixth-form maths & physics, which few other girls were in), so I'm not sure there was a huge proportional difference. The most notable thing about classrooms in the UK (compared to the descriptions USians give) is that they tend to be quiet & detached; learners don't engage with teachers as a matter of course. Even as late as my first year of university, I was aware that many of the other people in my classes did not want to speak up in seminars unless they were forced to. I suspect we take learning more passively - maybe it's that British hostility/personal apathy again - but the best teachers I ever had were always the ones who got everyone engaged with them, not just me and a few others who were in the mood for it.