Narrow the gap

In recognition of International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8 every year, Gina Trapani (of Lifehacker and This Week in Google fame) launched Narrow the Gapp, highlighting the gap in salaries between men and women doing equal work.

(Edit, March 12: Gina has now posted about this on her own blog, Smarterware.)

For example, in software engineering women earn on average only about 91% of what men earn.

The data is from the United States, but the problem is world wide.

My natural first reaction to seeing statistics like this is to think, “It’s terrible that this is the case, but I’m sure it’s not true of my company.” And maybe I’m right. After all, I don’t work for a conventional comany. But even if I am right, that means that for every woman I work with who justly earns what her male colleagues earn, there is someone at another job who has it twice as bad as the stats imply.

Here’s the thing about gender and its relation to software engineering. I’ve seen some strange things in my time, but I’ve never seen anyone use a penis to improve his programming. It seems weird that you might be paid extra for having one.

A common argument that comes up every time the pay gap is mentioned is that men are better at negotiating salaries. But isn’t that still part of the problem? Pay should be related to the work you do, not your ability to negotiate with your employer. If men are more likely to be willing or able to negotiate higher salaries, then that is itself a systematic bias against women whether or not it’s rooted in overt discrimination.

It’s also likely that if men are generally more successful at negotiating it might not be because they’re better at it. It’s just as likely that they’re successful because of the attitude of the person they’re negotiating with. A lot of negotiation is in the perceptions of the person on the other side. Discrimination (intentional or otherwise) creeps in wherever it can.