Unspoken Rules: A View from the Bottom

This is a difficult post, but I’m going out a limb today because for whatever reason, I’ve seen a few articles this week that got me to thinking about inequality, particularly in the workplace.  I don’t consider myself a crusader on behalf of women’s rights or even a feminist in any mild sense of the word, but I am trying to process some of my own observations and past experiences with some data that I came across this week.

Now I’ve heard some of the same figures you have where, depending on the job, women generally earn a portion of what men earn, with the national average in the US for all jobs hovering at around 80%.  But I saw another eye-opening chart this week from NPR’s Planet Money blog, which outlined the largest and smallest pay gaps by profession between men and women.  The wage gap is real and consistent, especially across various high-paying professions, including medicine, finance, real estate, and sales.

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The biggest pay discrepancies are found in jobs that pay the most, particularly in leadership roles.  According to this Economist chart from earlier last year, female chief executives earned less than 70% of what their male counterparts earned.  The Economist used data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington DC think-tank.  And despite some differences in the data, the overall larger conclusions match the findings from the NPR chart, whose data came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Basically the higher profile the job, the more money and the larger the discrepancy.  Not only do we have very few women in top management roles, but also these female managers and bosses generally get paid significantly less relative to their male counterparts.  A sad statistic given that as of Oct 2012, only 12 Fortune 500 companies had women CEOs.

That’s right, 2.4% of the largest companies in the US have a woman CEO.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have been living the American Taitai life for a while now.  But I used to be a working stiff myself.  And the data I’ve talked about certainly seems to align with my own past experiences working for various large investment banks in Hong Kong.  Things may have changed in the last 4 years since I’ve been out of the game, but I suspect they haven’t changed that much.

Jaded is a term that comes to mind when I think about the concept of “management.”  But throughout my career, I’ve admittedly only viewed “management” from the perspective of the “one being managed” (ie: the peon/worker-bee doing the grunt work and mostly taking all the orders.)  I’ve never had to “manage” others.  So my personal lens has been limited to that of an employee who has not always had the pleasure of working for a good boss.  Thus my view on managers and the concept of “management” is admittedly, quite tainted.

Now I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty good employee and a somewhat diligent worker-bee.  But unfortunately for me, with the exception of a few good bosses whom I very much respect, many of my previous managers were not so great, and tended to illustrate a popular management style, particularly effective for short-term projects.  I’m talking about the Machievellian management style where it is far “better to be feared than to be loved,” but only because as a boss, fear is a reaction that is easily achieved amongst your minions relative to love and adoration.

As a boss, who can be bothered to curry favor with one’s employees in order to simply do their jobs?

I’ve generally viewed bosses as powerful masters and employees as indentured servants who work for a paycheck.  Not the rosiest of pictures.  But this dynamic persists only so long as the employee is relatively well compensated.  In my experience, even if your boss is a jerk, as long as you are getting paid well, you will try your best to shut up and take it for as long as you can.  So when my bosses ordered me to jump, my reply was always, “How high, master?”  As a peon, my only recourse (a trump card in my mind) was to simply quit, leaving a mountain of work for a crappy boss to sort out.  I was on the lookout for another job, especially when working for a not-so-nice manager.

Nevertheless, I found it fascinating that throughout various companies across Asia, there is still an underlying culture of self-loathing, particularly in client companies’ attitudes towards the Caucasian expats relative to the Asian expats and employees of an investment bank.  Skin color in Asia also matters a great deal, and I found that generally, my Caucasian colleagues were more revered by clients relative to my Asian colleagues.  After all, Caucasian expats were clearly “experts” and obviously knew what they were talking about.  Otherwise, why else would they be in Asia?  It’s almost as if the vestigial attitudes of a colonial past in elevating the White Man remain firmly rooted.  In my view, the pecking order in Asia generally remains consistent.  At the top of the food chain of a global investment bank is the Caucasian Man.  Then comes the Asian Man and Caucasian Woman.  At the bottom is usually always the young Asian Woman.

My overall conclusion is this: being a woman means you’re screwed.  Being an Asian woman means you’re screwed even more. And being a young Asian woman is pretty much synonymous for the very bottom of the food chain.  Kind of like Daisy in Downton Abbey, who’s constantly getting the shaft.  And God help you if you are especially overweight or good or bad looking, because you won’t be taken seriously.  Somehow similar standards with respect to appearance just don’t seem to apply to men with devastating professional consequences.

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I’m happy to say that the culture did change when I changed jobs and banks and moved from a European bank back to an American one (because Americans are so much prone to sue over this kind of stuff.)  The environment was better.  But the biggest change was that I had a good boss, someone who would advocate for me.  And no surprise, that advocate was almost always a man.

What is the answer for women in the workplace?  To be honest, I’m not really sure.  The women I know who made it to the management level when I was working were all mostly scary or generally regarded as “dragon ladies.”  Why is that?  Why don’t we say the same about the men, who are all “nice guys,” even when some of them are jerks?  As for my female cohorts/classmates and friends who started out on in finance with me more than 10 years ago, I’d say that more than half have already left banking for other careers, or to stay at home and start families.  None of them are in senior management MD-level positions yet.

Looking back, it’s not just the world of finance where the power structure is so skewed, but the discrepancy is everywhere across professions, just like the NPR chart shows.  Look at the world of literature and publishing in prestigious publications.  The Count is run every year by VIDA, an organization promoting women in literature and arts.  It simply counts the rates of publications between men and women in respected publications.  It’s pretty clear there is still a long way to go before reaching any sort of parity.  Here’s a chart from one of the publications that I pretty much read on a daily basis online.  Not super encouraging.

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And while I admit they are different issues, the same filter and observations that I’m talking about with respect to gender inequality can be applied to race and ethnicity.  And there are generally two ways you can react to an unfair game when somehow, despite the odds, you’ve clawed your way into the echelons of management: 1) to be bitter and make life hell for a young protégé, so that they too will know just how hard it was for you; or 2) to be a gracious manager who advocates on behalf of your team members.

I’m hoping that those of you who are in a position to do so pick the latter and choose to be good bosses.  Besides, if you are a good boss, it becomes obvious (peons are not all as dumb as you think.)  There can even be a positive follow-on effect: the really great employees who are smart will look to join you.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with a with a great TED talk by Colin Stokes called “How Movies Teach Manhood.”  It hopefully distills my rambling post about simple biases in our everyday life down to what values we teach our kids from the movies we watch.  I learned about the Bechdel Test, and I’d like to pass the test on to you.  A movie passes the Bechdel test only if: 1) it has at least two women in it with lines; 2) the women actually talk to each other; and 3) the women talk to each other about something besides a man.  In 2011, only 11 out of the top 100 movies passed the Bechdel Test.

Think about it the next time you catch a film this weekend.  Think about it again when you’re back at work next Monday or Tuesday.  And if you happen to be in a position of leadership or power, be a good boss.  Your minions will thank you and think twice before jumping ship.

Happy Friday Everyone!

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