When we talk about the gender/wage gap, we're most likely discussing how women and men with the same skills and experience should get paid the same salaries (inarguable). We usually attribute the gap to straight-up sexism, which is impossible to dispute. I know I've encountered plenty of that in the workplace.
But there's another insidious force at work. It's nothing new, but I rarely hear it discussed. The fact is that women — including senior execs — still want to be mothers. (Not all of us, granted. But a great lot of us.) And because, even in the 21st century, women are still the main caretakers, we end up having to make the choice between children and a high-powered career...or spend a lot of time away from our kids. Of course, men want to be parents, too, but they often aren't forced to choose between parenting and career success.
There is good reason to put the topic back on the table: we have the tools and technology to architect real solutions to the problem.
I read an interesting article in The New York Times a couple of months ago that addressed this issue. It cites research showing that employers expect workers to spend long stretches at their desks. Those who must minimize their office hours, for whatever reason, are regarded as underachievers and are stigmatized.
The article quotes a 2014 study* in the American Economic Review by Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist. Goldin poses the question: "The converging roles of men and women are among the grandest advances in society and the economy in the last century. But what must the 'last' chapter contain for there to be equality in the labor market?" The answer, she says, may come as a surprise. Instead of the display solution requiring government intervention, Goldin asserts, it could come in the form of flex hours and technology that allow employees to work at home. She cites a whole lot of demographic research (and uses a bunch of equations and symbols that are way over my head) to make her case. But bottom line, she essentially proves that we can close the gap by changing the way we think about work.
What a revolutionary thought — stop penalizing folks for not living at their desks! Find a way for parents (all of them, not just women) to work similar hours as their non-parenting colleagues, without keeping them chained to the office.
I'm fortunate to work for a company that has a solution: a digital workplace.
With a truly digital workplace, employees can be highly effective teammates, even when they're not in the office. They can participate in meetings the same way they could if they were in the room. We're not talking screen sharing here. We're talking, "let-me-write-on-the-whiteboard-ok-it's-your-turn-now." We're talking about sharing a workspace. Presenting in turn without "passing control." Of course, the digital workplace still gives you video conferencing, screen sharing, and joint file repositories — in real-time, from any device.
Now you (male or female) can work at home a day a week and not miss a thing. Or stay home with a sick kid, when necessary. You can take a break to feed a baby and work more after said baby goes to bed.
All we have to do to make this utopia possible is to change our attitudes.
If you're a manager, I encourage you to give that a little thought. If we all do that, we can close that gap once and for all.
* "A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter," American Economic Review, Claudia Goldin.