The relative lack of progression of women through the career ranks is explained by many different factors. One of them is surely women’s relative economic power. This is twofold: firstly, the bare fact that women’s salaries are still less than men’s. And secondly, ways in which women may make spending decisions, especially once they have families. The first point is well-documented; the second point is one for which I don’t have rock-hard empirical data, (but which maybe some social scientist somewhere does) and which also surely will be subject to a great deal of individual variation, and will apply also to many men, but which I illustrate with a story. To see my point, it will be important to recognise the ways in which money is more than just pounds and pence, but is earned with differing relative costs, and spent with different relative costs.
But first, to some complexities. These economic difficulties in career progression will affect women more than men in some specific ways in different professions. So, for example, in certain workplace settings where it’s important not just to dress smart, but to dress really smart, there are more pressures on women than on men to spend a whole bundle of money on clothes. There are greater pressures on women’s appearance in general, and it’s a simple observation that men can get away with having only a very limited range of different work suits and shirts, but women have to have a greater variety of work clothes, especially in those areas of the workplace where appearance really matters. So a woman starting out in a junior position in, say, a city law firm, may find herself under pressure not just to have a range of work clothes, and to dress smart, but ‘smart’ may not be enough; if she dares wear something that’s smart but not designer, she may find herself the butt of gossip, sidelong glances, outright criticism, and, this is where it really matters, under suspicion that she’s not really putting her all into what’s needed in this workplace. So, she has to devote a greater part of her salary to literally putting in the appearance that she cares about her work. And this even for those of the female sex who actually don’t really care all that much about clothes and who would love to go to work in pyjamas, were it allowed. Like Ginger Rogers said, they have to do all that the men have to do, but in high heels, and backwards. And, they have to pay for it out of their own pockets.
Luckily in other areas of work, the dress code stakes are not so high. But there are many other examples of where workers have to be seen to be putting in that extra into their work in order to progress, and where that extra will cost them money. Money they might not have. And even if they have it, it’s money they could spend on one thing, or on another thing. Not prepared to spend it on work? Hmm, are you really the sort of person we want around here?
So here is one example. In academia, it’s essential to go to conferences. You need to list conference papers presented in your c.v., you need to be seen at conferences, you need to network there, and in order to progress your career you need to develop an international reputation, so going to conferences in other countries, or big conferences where people from other countries attend, is essential (and for ‘other countries’ we can usually read ‘the USA’, in many cases; it seems to be palpably obvious that hiring decisions made by many of the major ‘world class’ universities are governed by the thought: ‘what will this look like on our website? Will the Yanks be impressed?’).
But not everyone in academia has equal access to the money to go to conferences. I was going to put one story to illustrate this, but as I write realise there are more. There are many people now who work on teaching-only contracts, where there is little or no provision for funding to attend conferences. Of course, you can still go … if you pay yourself. It’s one of the filtering means by which to those who have little, still less will be given, as teaching-only contracts, such as the many tutoring jobs at Oxford Colleges (laughingly called ‘College Lectureships’, given that most people on such contracts aren’t allowed the privilege of giving their own lectures), are often bottom-of-the-pile jobs that can become blind career alleys.
Those in the more traditional university posts which involve both research and teaching often have the most autonomy over how they spend their allocation of funds that could be used to attend conferences. Those in research positions may have a reasonable pot of funds to attend conferences, but it might not necessarily be such an advantage to their career as this might seem. Depending on the source of the funding, the spending might be very limited, restricted for example only to conferences or meetings directly connected with the actual project (for instance, European Union funding tends to be very directive like this). And depending on the hierarchy of decision making on a research project, a researcher may have spending decisions made for them by someone further up the food chain. (Depending on how you look at the world, this person may be thought of as your ‘line manager’, or as a ‘dangerous predator’.)
In one such EU funded post I had, I wasn’t even allowed by my ‘line manager’ to know what was in my own travel budget. I was the only person in the research centre in this position – all the postgraduate students knew exactly what was in their travel budgets. (So his refusal to let me see the budget was a very good mechanism for control – it kept me in an infantilised position in the centre, and I felt more than a little humiliated by this.) He kept saying, ‘do let me know if there’s anything you want to spend money on’, and then simply not answering questions about exactly how much money there was. And then lo and behold, when I requested funds to attend a conference in the States, ‘oh, that conference sounds a bit expensive, we do have to make sure that we leave enough money because you might need to travel to Europe later on.’ Entirely unaware of how much money there was, and not wanting to leave insufficient funds for essential project travel, I decided not to attend the US conference. (A cunning move on his part, I now realise, because he left the ball in my court to decide, so it was my ‘choice’ not to go – but I had to do this in a condition of uncertainty, a condition he did not have). After the closing date for abstracts, he then told me, ‘oh, you could have gone.’ Frustrated by his hedging, prevaricating refusals to let me see the breakdown of the budget, I went above his head and asked someone in finance if there was any reason why I would not be privy to information about the project budget. Her puzzled email in reply made it clear that there was no reason at all why I should not know this. It’s my fault, I suppose, that I did not just push and push my line manager into a direct confrontation or row about the budget, but I found this too hard, and just too hard to manage his consummate ability to dodge direct questions. The centre administrator kept all the files in his unlocked office; all I had to do was to go into the centre on a Saturday, and look through the files when there was no one else there. I found the answer I had expected. There was plenty of money for me to have gone to the US conference.
This is a tale of how unchecked power in the badly managed research centres, which are the rapidly proliferating ‘wild west’ of Universities when it comes to the abuse of privilege, can impact upon the progression of careers in those who are unfavoured for whatever reason. In this case, I am as certain as I can be that this manager acted in ways to block the progression of women at mid-stage of their careers who might be a threat to his status as Top Dog. But to unpick and account for this kind of what is basically, let’s face it, bullying, is a complex task. And I have another, simpler, example of how the economics of being a woman might impede one’s career progression.
I took an academic post in Australia some twenty or so years ago. When I was offered the post, in trying to persuade me to take it, I was told not to worry about the distance of Australia from the rest of the world of western philosophy, because Australia was so geographically isolated, they had plenty of money for travel, and in particular for overseas travel. This really was one of the major considerations when I accepted the job.
But I never got one single cent for travel from them. Here’s how. First try: I had been engaged to teach applied ethics. Lo and behold, the week I arrived, after a 33 hour journey through 11 time zones, straight into a teaching load of two lectures and ten tutorials a week (shortly to be followed by four lectures and ten tutorials a week) I found out that there was a conference on teaching applied ethics in Sydney, a mere 40 minute plane ride away. ‘Oh, good, I’ll go to that’, I said. ‘Are you giving a paper?’ was the reply. No, of course not: I haven’t got a paper written, I am working my little cotton socks off, I am looking for accommodation, getting over jet lag, dealing with the tax office, opening a bank account, working out how a foreign country and a foreign university system works, it’s a bit late to submit an abstract, no, I’m just going to attend. After all, in the relatively Glorious Idyll that was Bristol University, we all had equal conference budgets that we could spend as we chose. The Australian university had never bothered to explain when they wooed me into taking the job that you could not get money to attend conferences, only to give papers. This is a great example in cultural blocks to communication. Because, from where I’d come from, it had seemed to me so utterly obvious that if you were giving a conference paper, which the university would then of course proudly list as an achievement, of course they’d pay for you go to, so it had not crossed my mind that this so-called vast piggy bank of travel money, about which the Australians had boasted so profusely, only covered expenses for giving papers (i.e. doing your job). They pay you necessary expenses to do your job, then boast about it? Duh?
So, when I explained to senior colleagues that I had simply wanted to attend the conference, I was looked at sneeringly, as if I were pulling a fast one. Trying to explain that I wanted to attend the conference because I had been hired to teach applied ethics, and the conference was on teaching applied ethics, got me nowhere. Trying to explain that I did not have time to write a good quality paper on top of what else I had to do was received in similar fashion. The response I got was, ‘go on, treat yourself’. And here, I’m not being fanciful in reporting the language – a senior colleague did actually use those telling words, ‘treat yourself’. I.e., pay to travel to Sydney, pay the conference fees, pay to stay in the conference venue, out of your own salary, like it was a box of chocolates or a spa day.
So I didn’t go. But I later realised that this incident, just a couple of days setting foot in that department, helped to seal my fate as one of the career Undead. Not only had I failed to show how dedicated I was by quickly rustling up a conference paper on top of everything else I had to do, I had failed to show how dedicated I was by refusing to spend several hundred dollars out of my own bank account on work. (Moving countries is very expensive, by the way – I just didn’t have much money left in my account for such extravagances anyway.) And of course, I then missed a very good opportunity to network with those others scattered all over this vast, thinly populated country who were also doing the same work. (I did try pointing this out to my head of department and other senior members when I tried to persuade them to fund me to attend, to deaf ears; they were equally flabberghasted that I wanted merely to attend, and that I wasn’t prepared to pay myself.)
Of course this kind of career hindrance could happen to people regardless of gender. But given that it’s an example of how workers are pressured into spending their own money on doing their work, and given women’s general lower economic power than men, it’s one example of the ways in which the hurdles for women, in general, might sometimes just be ever so slightly more difficult to navigate.
And my gender was directly relevant in the next conference money story. Move on a little bit, and I was still in the same department, but I’d had a baby, and was now only working half time. I was therefore spending quite a lot of my salary on childcare. I had a paper accepted at a medical law and ethics conference on Europe, and applied for the funds to attend. That was the second shock of failings of cross-cultural communication. For it turned out that when the university funded staff to give papers at overseas conferences, they’d fund you to travel once a year, but they’d only pay half your expenses. You had to pay the rest. WFT?????
It had simply, honestly, truly, never even crossed my mind that this could possibly be the case.
I tried reasoning with them. If the university will pay half your funding once a year, why not pay all your funding every other year? That would cost the same but be a fairer, I argued. Given that the whole founding premise of philosophy is surely reason, one might have had a glimmer of hope, but no. They were immovable. The local culture seemed to have the idea that going to conferences was half work, half jaunt, so it seemed generally accepted that this was fair enough. So the more I argued, the more I put myself in the position of being out of kilter with the local culture of that department, the more and more I reinforced my status as a career zombie, doomed: a denizen of the twilight world of the Career Undead.
But here are the realities for me. Even paying half the expenses for this conference was a huge whack out of my wages. I worked it out – it would have amounted to ten weeks’ take-home salary after paying for childcare. In my mind, that was equivalent to thinking that for ten weeks, I was working for nothing. Let me repeat that: ten weeks’ take home earnings. TEN WEEKS.
Now, there are several things to point out about this, because they point to particularities of the situation that are worth digesting.
Money is not just money. The same hard cash means very different things depending on the situation.
For one thing, once I’d had a child, my money was not just my money. It was the family’s money; it was my child’s money. Any money I spent on my career was money taken from the family spending pot. Not from my own personal spending pot.
For another thing, the money I earned was money I earned at a cost to other priorities. I earned that money by taking time away from my young child – a child who experienced strong separation anxiety, just as I did in return. This time away cost me not just money, but an emotional cost. It cost me in tiredness, which then cost him, in having a mother who was more tired than she would otherwise have been. These are costs not everyone has to bear. What this means in terms of the significance of finances, is that the salary I earned by taking time away from my child was harder earned than the salaries of others who did not pay these costs to go to work. So for me to take this money and spend it on anything, is to spend something it’s cost me more to earn. To expect me to spend it on work was, to coin a phrase, getting pretty close to adding insult to injury.
And for yet another thing, some of my colleagues may well have thought it entirely reasonable to view overseas trips to conferences as happy holiday jaunts which then would explain why it seemed to them reasonable that they would partially self-fund conference trips. But this proposed conference was no jaunt to me. I would arrive just in time and leave as soon as possible. I would miss my child. He would miss me. I would have to take a great deal of pre-planning on domestic arrangements just to be able to go. He was over a year old, but still partially breast-fed. He’d then miss the sudden interruption of the milk, and I’d have to cope with the discomforts of suddenly not feeding, and with trying to ensure the continuation of the supply. (He in fact continued to feed up to the age of about two and a half – much longer than most children in the west, but shorter than the average for complete weaning in many countries with more traditional societies, of about four years of age.) Jaunt, eh? Sounds a ball.
So for me, going to the conference would have had particular costs, and the money to go would have cost me especially dear. And many of these factors were directly or indirectly connected with my gender. In the particular department where I worked, the gulf between me and my fellow workers was exacerbated by the particular local culture, which only served to highlight my situation and make me more of an outlier. This local culture was one of extreme single minded focus upon an academic career; a culture of extraordinarily long working hours, even for a university – to do the bare minimum, when I was still full time, I’d been working 70 hours in most teaching weeks of the year, and I had one colleague who claimed that she worked 90 hours a week. I was the first person in that department to ever give birth; one of my male colleagues had a child, the rest were childless. And indeed, although almost everyone had a long term partner, only two of us actually lived day to day with their partner. Everyone else had chosen to conduct long distance relationships – with partners interstate, or in a different country, even in two cases, with partners who lived in different hemispheres. Now, of course, that’s their own free choice to live like that. But it set an atmosphere of the level of commitment to an academic life that I did not wish to match; and a level of commitment to an academic life that would have cost me more to match, in real terms, than somebody who did not have the same economic and family constraints.
My conclusion, then, is this. The causes and consequences of career disparities of gender are highly complex; the economic disparities between the genders is both a consequence of disparity and a source of disparity; and in understanding the exact nature and weight of this economic disparity, it’s essential to consider not just money in purely numerical terms of pounds and pence, but in terms of what the relative costs of earning that money, and the relative costs of spending it on one thing rather than another. When these factors are added in, the hurdles facing many women in advancing the career ladder become compounded.