Can We Please Stop Blaming the Gender Pay Gap on Women?

Despite purported attempts to close the gender pay gap, progress had been sluggish at best, writes Josie Cox in an excerpt from her book, "Women Money Power: The Rise and Fall of Economic Equality."

Can We Please Stop Blaming the Gender Pay Gap on Women?

An excerpt from the book, “Women Money Power: The Rise and Fall of Economic Equality" by Josie Cox. The book, from Abrams Press, is available now.

In early February 2021, I spoke to one of the most powerful men in America. 

Throughout my career, I’d put in several requests to interview him. Most had been ignored; none had been granted. So I didn’t push back when the CEO of this Fortune 500 company agreed to the conversation with me and a small handful of other journalists but stipulated that he would only do so on the condition of strict anonymity: We could ask him anything we wanted, but our exchange was to go no further.

Since we were confined to our homes because of Covid-19, our heads popped up on-screen at the agreed-upon time, he with his all-smiles spokesperson in tow. We introduced ourselves and exchanged easy pleasantries about the state of pandemic-ridden America and the recent end to the tumultuous Trump era. He offered an unsolicited interpretation of something peculiar that had happened in stock markets that day, to which I responded with feigned interest and a polite laugh. Then, with the mood established—convivial but not overly familiar, amicable but certainly professional—I deemed the moment appropriate to launch into the questions I’d waited a long time to ask.

“Congratulations on your initiative to hire more women,” I began, consulting my imaginary notes to calm my nerves. He nodded graciously, perhaps excited by the prospect of an opportunity to impress his colleague from the public relations department with a pitch about diversity. “But I do have one concern..."

The truth was that I’d been ruminating on this concern for years. Despite high-profile efforts by some of the world’s biggest corporations to create equal opportunities and equal representation for different genders within the workplace, businesses globally—and especially those in sectors such as finance—remained stubbornly skewed, predominantly led by white men and blighted by an undeniable pay gap that, in the majority of cases, was not diminishing. In the worst examples, a culture of toxic masculinity prevailed.

“I’m assuming this is a decent proxy for what’s going on elsewhere in your company. Can you explain why you’re not doing better?”

The company run by this particular CEO was no exception. Despite purported attempts at closing a considerable gender pay gap—defined as the difference in the average annual compensation of male and female employees—progress had been sluggish at best. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has since 2017 required by law all businesses employing at least 250 people to publicly disclose their gender pay gaps. This CEO’s company was headquartered in the United States but had British operations, so I had combed through its most recent state-mandated gender pay gap reports in preparation for our conversation.

“It doesn’t look great,” I now understatedly informed him, referring to the fact that his business’s overall double-digit pay gap in the United Kingdom had not contracted by even a single percentage point over the last couple of years. In vain, I tried to keep anger from seeping into my now slightly quavering voice. “I’m assuming this is a decent proxy for what’s going on elsewhere in your company. Can you explain why you’re not doing better?”

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This CEO is profoundly intelligent. No one makes it to the highest echelons of corporate America without a vast knowledge base. He’s tremendously well-educated and possesses an ability to negotiate astutely and make brilliant decisions under formidable pressure. But on that Tuesday afternoon as we sat—pixelated face to pixelated face—he revealed an ignorance, authentic or not, that stunned me to the core.

“The gender pay gap has many causes, Josie,” he began, as if preparing to walk me through the peculiarities of a complex financial product. Most important, he assured me, his company always paid women and men the same amount of money for the same work.

I interjected. Doing otherwise, I explained, would—under the Equal Pay Act of 1963—quite simply be illegal.

But he continued without acknowledging my remark. “And the other thing you have to understand, Josie,” he charged on, now a little more pointedly, “is that sometimes, when a woman temporarily leaves the workforce to have a baby, she doesn’t want to be promoted when she comes back. Some women just don’t want to.” In the seconds of silence that followed I glanced to the other side of my computer screen to see his PR rep frantically taking notes. The CEO was looking at me anticipatorily.

Academically, of course I know all about the attitudes and preconceptions that people foster about gender in the workplace. I’ve written and reported on the subject intently and for years. But whenever it’s presented to me in situ and in the grotesque and undeniable detail that it was on that day, it hits me afresh.

Undoubtedly, there’s some truth to what the CEO said. Sometimes a woman’s priorities really do shift singularly after she has a child. Indeed, my own personal experience substantiates this. I quit my newsroom staff job in 2018 after my daughter was born. My employer was not able—or willing—to offer me the flexibility that I wanted and that made sense financially, considering the cost of childcare. But it was astonishing that, as my interlocutor cast around for a quick explanation for why the gender pay gap was so cavernous within his firm, the first thing he landed on was women’s choice. It was as if he was trying to absolve himself of any responsibility in the matter.

It was astonishing that, as my interlocutor cast around for a quick explanation for why the gender pay gap was so cavernous within his firm, the first thing he landed on was women’s choice.

In the weeks that followed, this exchange, and particularly the CEO’s comment in response to my question about pay, preoccupied me. Over the last century, plenty of legislation has been passed that ostensibly affords women equal status in American society: The Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act the following year, and Title IX in 1972 represent perhaps the most obvious examples. Yet inequity between genders is rampant. And that’s even before accounting for factors like race. The long-established infrastructures, parameters, norms, and ideals that we live by inhibit the power of the law to an extent that few of us can even appreciate, because it’s what we’ve always known. The CEO’s beliefs about what women want were a prime example of that.

Money and, by extension, power, remain stubbornly gendered. The blame for that lies everywhere, and the effects of it are everywhere too. It’s easy to look away from the most uncomfortable truths, to ignore them or to gloss over them with explanations—like the CEO’s—that don’t pass muster. But we all have a duty to resist that impulse. There’s simply too much at stake.

Excerpt from the book “WOMEN MONEY POWER: The Rise and Fall of Economic Equality by Josie Cox published by Abrams Press © 2024 Josie Cox

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