Asking for less
November 8, 2011 § 7 Comments
David Cameron has been making lots of supportive noises about female membership of executive boards. Last week, hit by the news that executive pay saw a sharp increase last year, Cameron suggested that the “women on boards” plan could also help to address excessive pay. The boys club atmosphere of senior executive circles allowed men to keep on paying men more, he suggested, and a larger female presence would somehow cut through this and help to restore measure and balance.
But how exactly does the Prime Minister think the presence of women will curb pay? The Financial Times, looking for experts, found little expert evidence and one person who was willing to say that “women ask for less than men.”
Is this the way the curbing will work? Because women have been trained to ask for less than their male colleagues, their influence will mean everyone gets a bit less greedy?
There are some real problems with this. Though many people might agree that (mainly male) top executives demanding very high pay is wrong, it doesn’t follow that women demanding less is right. Women asking for less money is not an indication that women are less acquisitive or more measured than men, but that they have been trained – really, throughout our entire financial history – to think they should have less. Women have always been paid a smaller amount than men; they still are. They ask for less out of habit, fear, lack of self-esteem – but mainly because that’s the way it has always been and it is difficult to break through in every area, and to fight all the time. Women may have agreed to do top jobs at lower salaries because, in trying to achieve equality, status is more important than money. That doesn’t mean money isn’t important to women.
There is a second possibility. It is possible that with more women on boards, the average pay will go down: because the women will be paid smaller salaries than male colleagues doing a very similar job. Since this currently happens in almost every arena of professional life, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that it continued even after more women entered boardrooms. David Cameron’s plan might work in this way – will that be a triumph?
David Cameron seems to think he’s giving women a compliment, by propounding the idea that they will morally shame or wisely advise their greedy male colleagues. What he’s actually doing is counting on a historical inequality to solve a problem he should be addressing via policy.