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July 23, 2009

Ask-o-logy: The Squirmy Gender Question

Five factoids:

1. When men earn more than their wives do, they're happier. And it can't just be a little more income -- there has to be a big gap for a husband to feel "satisfaction." (Source: Study cited in Tuesday's WSJ.)

2. Women don't receive promotions, opportunities, responsibilities, privileges, exceptions, perks and benefits because... they don't ask for them. (Source: Women Don't Ask)

3. Female supervisors are expected to be more supportive and nurturing than male ones are. Those who are not are considered to be bad bosses. (Source: Study cited in MSNBC)

4. Women lose millions of dollars of cumulative lifetime earnings because they fail to negotiate their starting salaries. That single lost opportunity, which would require a few hours of research and ten minutes of talking during a hiring meeting, translates into a different income threshold for life. (Source: WDA)

5. And if you search for "female boss" and "male boss" in Google images, the top page is disturbingly quick to propagate damaging gender stereotypes: three naked women, Paris Hilton, a frustrated looking chick at a computer and a bunch of silly cartoons, versus lots of men in suits, including two ordering around female employees. (My own finding.) Here's one sample female boss:

(Cartoon from Woman Honor Thyself, about male versus female bosses.)

In broad strokes, this is one aspect of the professional landscape facing working women in America today. In other countries, too, I gather, but I'll focus here on what I know firsthand. Of course there are exceptions. And speaking personally, I have been blessed for the most part to work with fair and enlightened employers.

But as a young professional about to start a full-time job search, this info deeply troubled me.

I had three concerns at the start of the project:

--Is it possible that I am being ripped off because of my gender, in professional or other contexts? What if I am, and I don't even realize it?

--Is it possible that I am aiming lower -- not asking, not seeking, not venturing -- because I'm a woman? Because I am socialized to be kind and thoughtful, or because I haven't developed the proper skills to identify opportunities?

--What would happen if I made a conscious effort to ask?

That last question led to many more: Would asking open doors? Would I be seen as pushy and bitchy? Would I be rewarded for my assertiveness? Would flirting be effective, and should I resort to that? Would my gender shape not only which methods I use to ask, but also how those methods are received? And how would people of each gender react to my asking?

Hence this project.

While gender wasn't a conscious concern while I asked -- I didn't stop think, "Hmm, I'm a woman asking a woman for a discount, how should I interact?" or "A new study says male bosses are more likely to promote female employees with morose humor, so let's see what depressing jokes I can make today!" -- I did collect enough data to come to produce some interesting findings.

But why am I calling this a "squirmy" question? Not because it makes me squirm, but because I think it's kind of slippery and elusive. Basically, these results raised a lot more questions than they answered.

In the next post, I'll break down this data. But I wanted to outline these concerns here, so you understand a little more about my approach.
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