Understanding the gender divide in how people talk about money
Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they look at the differences in how men and women talk about compensation. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.
Let me begin by copping to a gender-specific failing: The shopping duties in my household do not fall to me. I did not select our furniture, although I have, on occasion, been required to accompany my wife, Tomoko, on her forays to outlets big-box and small as she determines the future of our seating. I had no say whatsoever in the plates or flatware. When Tomoko first moved in with me, she banished the sheets and pillowcases (bought by my mother at the time of my separation from my first wife), replaced the drapes, and undertook the purchase of clothes needed for the children. I grocery shop, ferry our dependents to the sites of their education and entertainment; ensure the continuing good health of our cat, dog, and car; cut checks from bank accounts as directed; and am responsible for sundry other tasks, chores, and obligations too varied and boring to mention. What weight there is in our home, I pull my fair share of. But shopping I avoid.
All of which helps explain my lack of familiarity with CouponCodes4u, a consumer website that recently conducted a survey of the dynamics of female-male workplace behavior. To wit: 2,671 office-working Americans were (Fine print alert: the survey also included the mysterious labor population not toiling in-office but "an environment with other colleagues.") asked if they ever discussed their salaries with co-workers. Fifty three percent of male survey respondents admitted to having done so, compared to only 15 percent of female respondents. Of those women unwilling to disclose the size of their, uh, salary, nearly a third said it was because they feared their colleagues earned more than they did. Oddly, another 22 percent said they showed discretion about their pay because they believed they earned more than others.
In those workplaces from which I've been fired (basically all of them, but for the current one), chitchat about paychecks hasn't tracked along gender lines: Either everyone talked about it, or no one did, with the most significant correlation being the overall rates of pay. That is, the more everyone made, male or female, the less the subject was discussed. There's much to be made of that, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'll focus on one problematic observation, given what is known of female-male compensation balance in the U.S. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show women's earnings still reach only 80 percent of their male counterparts. The disparity decreases in the relatively educated workplaces silly enough to pay me, but does not—as yet, one hopes—approach true equity. That suggests that if women earn less, one should expect them to talk about money more, in amounts proportionate to the total pay. For example, in the offices of my more parsimonious former employers, ones in which everyone complained of their pay, women should have done with greater frequency, as they were likely earning less than the men. That didn't happen, though, not to me, and not on the survey.
Pseudo-scientific studies, and myopic opinions based only on personal experience, rarely account for the complexities of actual human interaction. Here's one factor I believe accounted for by neither the survey nor my sexist judgments: Most women are more polite in the workplace than men. That doesn't make for superior employees, necessarily; nor does such propriety equate with elevated character. Women just tend to be on better behavior. Dirty jokes; sexual harassment both overt and implied; acts of violence—these are all typically (although not always) the purview of the working male rather than his under-compensated female workmate. If that is true—and who knows if it is—it seems logical, then, that men would be more likely to discuss their pay, a practice that while, if not wrong, is undoubtedly rude.
Male competitive norms may play a part. The survey, for example, found that 55 percent of men who discussed their salary acknowledged being motivated by the "bragging rights." Bully for any dudes clearing enough to strut about it—as demonstrated earlier on this site, the brain trust of DadWagon has never been so favored. At one former job, however, I happened to work with several fellows lucky enough to have book deals, myself included. The size, heft, and dollar value of those publishing contracts was no secret, and short of whipping out our peckers and measuring, I can't think of a clearer attempt at securing bragging rights. If women engage in comparable displays of peacockery, I've yet to witness it.
In truth, though, the survey indicates more about the sexism extant in our work culture than anything having to do with displaced male locker room bravado. Generally, men enjoy a greater sense of empowerment in the workplace than women. We will, I imagine, continue to feel so, until pay equity has been achieved, if ever it is. Men talk about their salaries because, like most forms of boorishness, they can. Come the day that women achieve fiscal equality with men at work, I'd wager the gender kinetics of this very slim issue will change, although in which direction—more talk or less—I'm uncertain. Until then, when it comes to workplace piggery, men will, as ever, dominate.
My six-year-old daughter has an old friend—in as much as first graders can have old friends—who is a boy who used to live in Brooklyn but moved west. He visited again recently, and after a long absence, they fell to discussing something that has suddenly become important to them: money.
"I have $75," said the boy, a statement that his mother later verified as true.
"Oh, that's funny. I have $68," said my daughter, a statement that was categorically false. Even after Santa delivered that bag of real gold she asked for (ten Sacagawea dollar coins in a little satchel, as it turned out), she still doesn't have more than $25 to her name. But the old friends just turned to each other and laughed. "We have SO much money," they said one after the other.
The last time they saw each other, they really didn't feel this way about money. Yes, she's had a half-full piggy bank on her nightstand for years, but this thing of talking a lot about money, and this magical thinking (read: lying) about how much money she has is new. Watching them made me think that salary bragging might be an actual developmental step. Kids are often braggarts, which seems—if I can indulge in some armchair psychiatry—like a useful shield for them as they start to look around and see just how little they are capable of in the adult world.
The leap from piggy-bank fibbing to salary-bragging is a natural one. At an older age, it is still the defense of the braggart, particularly of men who are ever-aware that they have less and earn less and are less than others on this earth. But I'll say this about salary bragging and six-year-olds: as with so many social and cognitive milestones, young girls are simply a little more advanced than the boys.
I've known for a long time that I'm not—how shall I put this?—the most traditionally manly of men. I know, I know: This may come as a surprise to anyone who's gazed upon my hulking 5-foot-8, 150-pound frame, heard the resonant boom of my Dylan-esque voice, or run their lustful fingers across my nubby scalp, but it's true. I'm at heart a little guy, full of frailties, failings, and neuroses, who's uncomfortable with the idea of any kind of macho behavior, like, say, bragging about my salary.
Because what would I brag about? I've never made enough money to boast about; in fact, I've always been either underpaid (for glamorous work) or paid just adequately enough (for tedious work). Last year, in fact, I made so little money as a freelance writer (after the usual deductions) that I wasn't even required to pay New York City's Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility tax, which is maybe $100 every year, tops. If I were single, I would be homeless, or more likely living in a far cheaper place than New York. Like Lagos.
See how much easier this is for me, to put myself down rather than build myself up? It's the legacy of Woody Allen, I think, that many of us born in the 1970s and reared in the Freaks and Geeks 1980s are only too happy to embrace (we don't really have any choice): We are nebbishes, nerds, and nudniks, with bad hair, bad skin, and bad, bad dance moves. And yet instead of letting our unmanliness dominate us, we made peace with it and moved on, mocking ourselves more mercilessly than any jock, prep, or cheerleader ever did. In fact, I just wrote a whole book about my failures as a traveler—how, after decades of jetting around the world, I still get sick, spend nights alone, and make stupid, humiliating mistakes. (It's coming out in May, by the way.)
Relentless self-deprecation has become my basic mode of being, and that's antithetical to so much of American office and public life: the endless talk about sports, cars, and money. Whenever I overhear coworkers say things like, "Did you see the Nets beat OKC last night?" (which happened as I was writing this piece), I feel the gap between myself and that traditional form of masculinity yawn ever wider and deeper. At times, when I observe how passionate guys get arguing about the superiority of, say, BMW over Mercedes, or discussing serious money-making deals, I wish I could be the same, just to know how that feels, to care so much. But that's also how I feel about jumping from a moving train or eating glass: curious, but not that curious.
Instead, I'll content myself with my own little beta-male world of onedownsmanship, and leave the boasting to the boors. Which is, I have to admit, its own form of bragging. By abasing myself so thoroughly, I'm really setting myself on a different, purer plane of existence, where we're all so gawky and hopeless that we simply needn't bother competing with the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe. But you know what? That's one bit of hubris I can live with.