It’s Time to Start Looking at the Gender Gap Differently

Comedian Sarah Silverman’s latest video skit, a collaboration with the National Women’s Law Center, shows Silverman undergoing an operation to acquire male genitalia, and thus avoid the unfair pay gap that comes with being a woman — the “vagina tax,” as Silverman crudely puts it.

Needless to say, the video fell flat. The organization later released a statement saying that the video was meant to point fun at the ridiculousness of the gender pay gap, but the skit misses the real issues behind the gender gap and actually plays into some of its stereotypes — in addition to an offensive portrayal of transgender people who transition (basically, trans people don’t transition just to get a pay increase).

The gender gap between men and women is substantial and progress is slow. The latest report by the World Economic Forum claimsit will take until 2089 — 81 years — for the gender gap to be bridged between men and women in areas like equal pay, equal representation in the boardroom, health, education and political empowerment.

Studies after studies have examined how to close this gap. Some have suggested that women should act more confident at work, or that they should ask for more promotions or pay increases. The wage gap has also been attributed to the fact that women oftentimes take time off from work to raise children. Fair enough. Some pressure should be put on women to change things themselves, but the reality is that external factors also have a lot to do with this slow progress.

More attention — and different methods of research — should be on the specific barriers that women face in the workplace.

Take Kristen Shilt’s work for example. The University of Chicago professor’s research has examined the experiences of trans men and women who have transitioned and lived the realities of both genders in the workplace.

Shilt’s 2010 book “Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality” contained case studies that found that transgender men and women who had the same human capital after they transitioned — namely the same skill set and characteristics — experienced radically different treatment, compensation, and levels of respect.

While I realize that there are many differences between the transgender experience in the workplace and the experience of women in the workplace, which shouldn’t be taken lightly, the study’s findings shed light on quantifying colloquial evidence about gender politics in the workplace.

The Shilt study showed that MTF (male to female) transitions received on average a 32 percent wage decrease after their transition, while women who transitioned to men experienced a 7.5 percent wage increase in addition to other perks.

The gender gap doesn’t exist because women are women, and there is something inherently different about their bodies, as the Silverman video suggests. We should be talking about a big part of that issue, the workplace environment and the way people react to women in that environment based on long-held stereotypes about gender and ability.

In Shilt’s study, transgender women as a whole said they were taken less seriously upon transitioning to women in the workplace. An example that sticks out was a MTF transition who reported being questioned about her mathematical abilities and opinions after her transition. Women who transitioned were oftentimes considered incompetent, and in some cases lost their jobs or had lower pay, especially in misogynistic/homophobic environments.

On the other hand, FTM transitions as a whole claimed to be taken more seriously upon transitioning in the workplace. One example? A worker realized in meetings that his opinions were no longer questioned and people were writing down what he said. There is also the example of scientist Ben Barres who worked as a biologist at Stanford and lived as Barbara Barres until his fourties. After his transition, Barres was told that he was a much better scientist than his ‘sister’ by those who didn’t know that he had transitioned. FTM transitions who were once told they were too aggressive as women were suddenly considered “take charge” after their transitions.

The fact is that gender impacts your experience in industries and what people expect from you. It’s like the old adage: “Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise. Women are assumed to be incompetent until proven otherwise.” We might be a long way from closing the gender gap, but more studies that look into quantifying workplace biases against women in leadership positions are a good place to start.