Jane Caro

How to solve both the gender pay gap at work and the gender performance gap at school

The gap in work wage and performance at school still sadly stands. In fact, our moves up to this point have been focusing on the wrong people. Time to shift our focus.

 

 

There is something particularly dispiriting about the amazement that greeted the news that in-house lawyers in the US who happen to be female are paid the same as in-house lawyers who happen to be male. (O.M.G! The same? Are you sure?) It reminds us how completely normal and unexceptional it is for us all to accept that women do the same work for less money.

Indeed, equal pay is so outside the norm that this result, uncovered by legal research firm Acritas, made headlines. By definition, what makes the news is unusual. It is also depressing that this was the only bright note in a report that also found that, in general, male lawyers around the world earn 26% more than their female peers. Just to add insult to injury, if the rest of the world is like Australia in more than just paying female lawyers less than they are worth, then those same underpaid female lawyers have probably out-performed their male peers at school and at university. More women now graduate from university than men, more women top courses and win academic prizes and more women are now entering the legal profession, yet the most competitive advantage remains the ownership of a penis.

Parents around the world often lament the fact that boys underperform at school and university – at least when you compare them with girls. All sorts of ideas are put forward to help them do better in education. Some of these ideas, horrifyingly, seem to involve hobbling the hardworking girls – more male teachers (some have even suggested paying them more than their female counterparts! Say what?), or having more “boy-friendly” texts, exercises and material. My girls were constantly reading novels, plays and poems at their co-ed school that starred men and boys. Despite all the fuss, it didn’t help the guys in their class get higher marks. I also wonder what part of less than 20% of protagonists in children’s films being female isn’t working? Just think about Finding Nemo. There is apparently only one female fish in the entire ocean and she can’t remember her name from one minute to the next.


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In other words, everything we have been doing to try and fix boys doing less well at school is not working. Not to mention how revealing it is that we are so much more worried about fixing the boys-underperforming-at-school problem than we are about fixing the girls-being-underpaid-when-they-leave-school problem. This is a mistake, because I think that if we fix the latter we may also fix the former. I have offered this lateral solution before (and bought a storm of abuse upon my head as a result) but I still think it makes sense and is at least worth considering. Bear with me.

Maybe the reason boys don’t do as well as girls at school or at university is directly related to the facts about pay uncovered by Acritas. Maybe the girls knuckle down and slog their guts out precisely because of that. Girls (and women lawyers, doctors, engineers, CEOs et al) know they have to work twice as hard to be thought half as good and even then they will only get paid three quarters of a male wage. And if they are really, really good (as obviously the in-house female lawyers must be) they might – one day – aspire to earn the same. Maybe boys don’t work as hard at school because they know they don’t have to. Every subtle message we give them tells them they have a natural advantage. It is an entirely sane and rational response not to bother to put the effort in when you know you’ll likely get more reward anyway.

This is, in fact, another reason why closing the pay gap matters. It doesn’t just matter for women and girls – although of course it matters for them, and matters very much – particularly as they age. It matters for men and boys too. It isn’t good for them or for our economy, society or legal system if some people get the top jobs because of irrelevant factors like gender or skin colour. It isn’t good for boys that so many of them (there are always honourable exceptions, of course) slide through school doing no more than they have to. We need both our boys and our girls to be well-educated and to realise their potential. If the gender pay gap in the workplace does have a direct impact on the performance gap in the classroom then if we levelled the playing field in the work place perhaps that might also make more boys take their studies more seriously. Surely it’s worth a try? Because even if I am wrong, the worst that will happen is that women will get paid fairly for the work they do.

Anyway, I suspect it would work. And my evidence for that is that performance gaps at school aren’t just about gender. We know that the children of immigrants – both boys and girls – generally work harder and do better at school than their native-born peers. We easily accept that this is because they know they have started out behind the eight ball and have more to prove.

Well, why are we so resistant to the idea that the same holds true for girls?

 

Jane Caro

Jane Caro has a low boredom threshold and so wears many hats; including author, novelist, lecturer, mentor, social commentator, columnist, workshop facilitator, speaker, broadcaster and award winning advertising writer.

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