Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On "Fairness" In The Workplace

Many months ago, I was listening to the radio when there was a discussion on gender equality in the workplace. One of the guest speakers said something that stuck in my head. It has been bothering me ever since. The female speaker said something along the lines of, "Women who leave the workplace for a period of time to have and raise babies, should, upon their return, make the exact same amount as their male counterparts who stayed behind and continued to work. It's unfair that women are forced to bear the burden of reproduction while men are completely unaffected. This is why there is income inequality."

Allegedly, in this woman's mind, if a woman stepped out of her career for a couple years to have children, when she returned to work she should be given the same salary with raises and benefits as if she had never left work at all. Even though this woman had no extra job values or career skills to offer her employer (other than an incredible new perspective on life) than when she left. Apparently, women are "burdened" by reproduction. And apparently, it's up to employers and businesses to right this horrible, terrible "burden."

I'm sorry. That's not equality. That's the opposite of equality. I'm all for equality in the work place. Women should be paid the same as men of equal qualifications for doing the same quality of work. But they should not be paid the same for not working at all. Equality is not giving everyone the same thing. Equality is measuring everyone by the same objective performance standards. Fairness is not taking away our differences but offering reasonable accommodations (non-monetary) to allow individuals to participate in and get the most out of their careers despite lifestyle choices.

There is a part of me that understands the argument that this woman proposes. At first blush, it does seem unfair that half the population has to step back from their careers for even a short period of time (often 6 weeks) based solely upon their gender and their desire to bring forth the next generation. But when our society sees the wonderful gift of creating life as a "burden," ... boy do we have it all wrong.

You know what is really "unfair?" Men will never experience the movements of a child growing within. Men will never know what it feels like to nurture a child with their own bodies. Men, aside from the obvious contributions at the beginning of a pregnancy, will never be able to create life. The amazing, surreal, and mind blowing experience of creating a person can only be experienced by men on the periphery. This joy is reserved solely for those lucky enough to be women. That is what is really unfair.

I'm not saying all of pregnancy and childbirth is easy. I, as much as anyone, know how hard it can be. I absolutely hated being pregnant. But even despite abdomen muscle separation, kidney stones, stretch marks, back pain, and being unable to breathe for the last three months of pregnancy, even despite all of those things, the miracle of it all is hard to ignore and I would never give it all up for the alternative.

So when our society, and women in particular, complain about the "burden" of reproduction as if it is some black mark or disability that women need to be liberated from, I can't help but think that we have our priorities all wrong. We're buying into the male-centric view that the end-all, be-all of our worth as humans is our place in the workforce totem pole and the size of our paycheck. Under this male-dominated view of self-worth, being separated from your job, for even just a couple weeks, is the ultimate career death and, therefore, the cure is for women is to be treated as if they never left.

As a working mom, I know it is important for workplaces to support both women and men who enter the wonderful world of parenthood. Obviously, I think that women should not be punished for taking time off to have children. They should not have to worry about being fired for going on maternity leave or taking sick days related to pregnancy and childbirth. They should be given opportunities to excel and move up in their careers upon their return to work. But why are we being told to treat our unique physical capabilities (i.e. the ability to create life) as a handicap? Why do we think we should be given things we do not earn as a consolation prize for having to bear the "burden" of enduring the great miracle of life?

It's not "fair" that women have to bear the majority of pregnancy and childbirth. Just as it is not fair that people with no kids have more disposable income. Just as it is not fair that some people are unable to have children. Just as it is not fair that some people are born with disabilities. Just as it is not fair that we do not get to choose our gender at conception. But giving women more pay for less work when they take time off to have children is as absurd as establishing someone's pay based upon how many children they have. Mothers above all else, who repeatedly have to introduce the concept of life as unfair to their children should understand the application of this very concept!

We all make choices in life. We all have different values. We all have different physical and mental capabilities. Some of us are men. Some of us our women. The only way to ensure "fairness" in the workplace is not by taking away our differences so that we are all the same but to reasonably accommodate our differences so that, no matter what those differences are, we have the opportunity to contribute to and participate in our professions and careers.

I find it highly offensive that society views our differences as "disabilities" as if we all should want the exact same things out of life and any deviations or alterations from the "straight an narrow" career path, whether forced or chosen, render us inferior or someone to be pitied or liberated. I also find it very unsettling that women view the natural ability to create life as an intolerable and insufferable burden that must be alleviated. We should celebrate the fact that we are fortunate enough to be born women and that we have the amazing ability to make an entirely new person with nothing more than our bodies (and, of course, some male contribution at the very beginning).


  1. Great post. And this "We're buying into the male-centric view that the end-all, be-all of our worth as humans is our place in the workforce totem pole and the size of our paycheck" x1000.