Gender Disparity: Paycheck Fairness Act is not enough

Before I start, let me say that I support any effort to address wage inequality and I believe strongly in the right to equal pay for equal work. If the Paycheck Fairness Act helps to bring more equity to the workplace, I’m all for it, but it will not eliminate wage disparities between men and women on its own.

Republicans are wont to point out that women make less than men not because of discrimination but because of lifestyle choices. (Read a fuller discussion of this in The Guardian.) Their argument centers on the fact that it is possible to pay every woman in any given job the same wage as every man in a similar job and still end up with wage disparity because more women are in lower-paying jobs. To Republicans, this means sexual discrimination is not a problem (everyone should just choose to be a petroleum engineer or investment banker, right?), but for the rest of us it means that sexism is a pernicious problem that will not easily be solved with a piece of legislation.

First, we might ask why the jobs more women choose pay less than the jobs more men choose. One proposed answer is that men choose jobs that are riskier and require a more “masculine” personality. Women, it is assumed, will choose safer and less demanding jobs. Another answer is that women gravitate toward jobs that require fewer hours (they need to get home to the kids, you know?). And another is that women choose jobs that require less training.

According to the 2013 Physician Compensation Report, male doctors earn 30 percent more than female doctors. The report explains the disparity thus: “There are fewer women in some of the higher-paying specialties. For example, in orthopedics, only 9 percent of the survey respondents were women, whereas in pediatrics, 53 percent of survey respondents were women.”

Interestingly, the lowest paid specialty in medicine is now HIV/Infectious Diseases, which also happens to be the specialty with the second highest rate of overall satisfaction (just behind dermatology). The other low-paying specialties are family medicine, diabetes/endocrinology, and internal medicine. Other high-paying specialties, after orthopedics, are cardiology, radiology, gastroenterology, and urology.

While I can’t see that the risk of treating infectious diseases is lower than the risk of practicing urology, I do see that the lower-paid specialties focus more on care and concern and require human interaction. (It still may be true that women are more risk-averse, which may be why they are safer doctors.) It seems to me that we value technical expertise over human and care and concern in most fields. At least we are more willing to pay for technical expertise and less willing to pay for the care and concern that we will all need.

Teachers work hard and take many risks but will never earn as much as petroleum engineers. Ah, but petroleum engineers fatten the bottom line for their employers, you say. Let them try to survive without teachers to get them there. Let all the hard-working risk takers make it through life without the people who cared for them and helped them become successful. And men have always said this, haven’t they? We have clichés such as “Behind every successful man is a woman.” And women have done their work, largely, for free—because they had no other choice. So the work women have done is devalued (though prized in way) and undercompensated. If fewer people were willing to do “women’s work,” the price of such work may indeed rise, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.

And men sometimes choose work that may be seen as “feminized.” When they do, men also earn less because their work is undervalued, too. If the work were not undervalued, I aver that more men would choose different careers. After successful careers in industry, some men choose to leave their jobs for more “meaningful” work after middle age. The work people describe as “meaningful” or “rewarding” is almost always related to either caring relationships or creative enterprises; these are the activities that make life seem worthwhile.

Because these activities bring so much personal satisfaction, people are willing to do them for less pay. If petroleum engineering did not pay so well, I’m sure some people would still choose it as a profession, but many people choose it now only because it pays well and not because it enriches their lives in any other way. Many men are starting to reject the idea that they must choose careers based on how well they pay. Some men in the men’s movement reject being treated as “success objects.” Nonetheless, I think women are more likely than men to feel free to choose careers based on satisfaction rather than remuneration, and men are more likely than women to feel they must choose a career that pays well. There are many, many exceptions, of course, but not enough to close the pay gap between men and women.

So, what should we do to address the problem of wage disparity? First, stop devaluing “feminine” work. Recognize the true value of education and care. Second,  stop treating men as “success objects.” Remove the stigma from rejecting a high-powered career for a more rewarding and meaningful life. Finally, make it possible to find a balance between a career that pays well and a meaningful life. Some women may pass up high-paying professions because they do not want to neglect their family relationships or similar concerns. At the same time, some men neglect relationships and personally rewarding work because they feel obligated to earn as much as possible. Men and women would both behave differently if it were possible to enter any career without having to sacrifice family relationships, volunteer opportunities, and creative outlets. Another world truly is possible.

Is there a wrong way to grieve?

Over the past few months, I’ve written of several philosophers of the ancient past who taught that grief should not overwhelm us before themselves becoming overwhelmed by grief. Stoic philosophers taught that we should understand that death is nothing to fear or mourn, if only we can have the proper understanding, but the emotion of grief trumps rational explanations every time. I would conclude, then, that we should not attempt to suppress or diminish our grief but should let it unfold naturally and grieve for as long as necessary. Criticizing the grief of others seems counterproductive at best.

But this left me wondering whether there is a wrong way to grieve. What obligations can the bereaved have to others? Obligations to the dead? Does grief suspend normal obligations?

Like the rest of the world, I don’t know what caused Spc. Ivan Lopez to go on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood. He certainly had experienced a great deal of stress in his life and had good reason to experience problems with mental health. According to a CNN article by Ray Sanchez, Lopez’s father said the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother, medical treatment, and changes related to transfer of military installations “surely affected his condition.” Grief often becomes unmanageable when it is combined with other complications, obstacles, and challenges. We do well not to ignore the impact of grief on those around us. We are part of a community, and the health of the community deals in part on how well we respond to grief.

For an example from fiction, I’m reminded of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Emily has much to grieve for: When she loses her father, she loses a loved one but also status, wealth, predictability, and honor. She responds by simply refusing to acknowledge her loss. In the beginning she denies that her father is even dead. Eventually, she relents and permits him to be buried, but continues her life as if nothing has changed. Her neighbors go along out of pity, not respect. As you probably remember, Emily eventually takes a lover from out of town, kills him, and sleeps with his body for the rest of her life.

Emily’s neighbors had tried to offer condolences to her when her father died, but she denied his death. After his death, the neighbors reacted to her with a mix of compassion, respect, suspicion, and disgust, but they also lacked the will to intervene as Emily continually pushed them away. They left Emily with her privacy and, as much as possible, a little dignity, which only led her to more extreme and destructive measures.

If I say that Emily grieved unethically, you may say that grieving wasn’t the core problem; rather, she was refusing to accept change. But grief is always a reaction to change, and all change is annihilation. The bereaved will often say the whole world changed, and that is exactly what has happened. Emily’s world changed, but she refused to accept either her father’s death or her change in fortune. By killing her lover, she tried to preserve a moment forever. Emily’s response to grief was understandable but not excusable. Then again, perhaps her neighbors did not respond ethically to Emily’s grief. The neighbors did reach out to Emily, even with follow-up visits, but failed to intervene more forcefully. Are they obligated to take matters into their own hands?

I recently had the opportunity to hear author Cheryl Strayed speak on her latest book, Wild, which is about Strayed’s own response to her mother’s death. Strayed is a talented and courageous writer and proficient speaker. As she talked about her grief journey, she only lost her composure once. She said that after her mother’s death she became the kind of daughter her mother would not have wanted her to be. She described her adultery, promiscuity, and substance abuse through tears that evaporated as she moved on to discuss how she began to manage her grief more positively (ethically?).

I ask whether there is an ethical way to grieve. We can see that people, overcome by grief, behave in ways that are certainly unethical in most contexts, but we may have such compassion for the bereaved that we soften our judgment of them. “What she did was wrong,” we may say, “But I can see why she did it. I might have reacted the same way.” But this may be true anytime someone acts unethically. In the exact same situation, I may have acted as Bernie Madoff acted. In fact, we have all acted in unethical ways. We had our reasons (grief, exhaustion, addiction, depression, or whatever), but our actions were unethical.

So what helps people behave more ethically? Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, says that with each of our actions we choose “the good.” He doesn’t mean we always make good choices, but given our options, we choose the one we thought was best, which means we write our ethical values for public view by the actions we choose. In this environment, other people become our hell. Nothing is more damaging to us than being trapped by the others’ perceptions of us.

When we choose an action, we are choosing the one that seems best to us at the time. The problem is that some of us have run out of good ideas for what to do. We often explain ourselves, rightly, by saying, “I didn’t know what to do!” If we had more ideas, we would have more choices and could make better decisions. Sartre claimed we have absolute freedom, but really we can increase our freedom by increasing the number of actions we have in our consciousness. Sartre saw others as our judge, jury, and executioner, but they can also become our community.

It is Sartre’s companion and lover who had a broader vision for existentialist ethics. Simone de Beauvoir was able to see the positive importance of others in our lives. Beauvoir declares “freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.” If we want to be free, we must seek our freedom through the freedom of our community, and our freedom grows out of our love. Beauvoir says, “If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Without valuing others, our life truly loses meaning, and we will lose all hope.

When I was in China, I once thanked someone for helping me with a problem, and she responded, beautifully, “When we help each other, we are free.” Indeed, it is the only way for us to become free. And it is the only way for us to have more good ideas of what we can do.