equal employment: having my say

One of the many unpaid jobs I have had over the years was that of staff writer for an alternative monthly paper in Chicago called Third Coast Press. The first big story I did for them [available as a giant PDF, if you are really interested] was about a couple of studies done by a couple of professors from the University of Chicago and MIT and by the Chicago Urban League concerning race and hiring. The first study [PDF] used just resumes — some sent out with “white” names with addresses in predominantly white neighborhoods, some with “black” names and addresses in predominantly black neighborhoods. You can guess which set of resumes got better responses. The other study [PDF] involved sending white and black candidates, where the blacks were actually better qualified than the whites, to in-person interviews and, once again, the white candidates fared much better. What interested me the most, though, was that it was the largest corporations — the Targets and Wal-Marts and Gaps of the world — that showed the least discrimination in hiring. What all those places had in common was that they had very strict standard hiring procedures, and there were thus fewer opportunities for the interviewer to say, “Oh, you went to Valparaiso? So did my best friend!”

I was thinking about these findings again in the light of the much-discussed Clay Shirky rant wherein Shirky says that women should act more like men — or at any rate adopt more of what he sees as male traits: assertiveness and risk-taking, if you like what Shirky says, or arrogance and outright lying if you don’t.

I live in a state that has the highest disparity in wages between men and women. Wyoming calls itself the Equality State on the strength of having been the first territory to give women the vote, not on anything it has done since. Most initiatives in the state that seek to address that problem are focusing on getting more women into traditionally male professions, most notably the energy industry. While I believe strongly that women should be encouraged to pursue those jobs, I don’t think that getting women into the energy is the solution to wage disparities in the state. Women already hold important jobs as nurses, childcare providers, and teachers. These are all jobs at least as crucial to the functioning of the world as energy industry jobs, but we do not pay them accordingly. Until we do, until we recognize and support the vital work that women do, we will never have any kind of equality.

Shirky is probably right in individual cases: if a candidate in the resume study had lied and given herself a “better” address, she might well have stood a better chance of getting a job. If a woman acts more “male,” that may well help her break into a profession. The tide of assertiveness — or arrogance — will lift those two ships. But when it comes to improving conditions for everybody, which is what I am really interested in, I think Shirky is dead wrong. As long as we treat “lifting people out of poverty” as “getting them better jobs” and “getting more pay for women” as “getting them into traditionally male occupations,” we will never solve the problem of poverty or inequality. There will always be scut jobs that need to be done no matter what kind of economy you live in. I have a good job, and my interests lie not in getting everyone a good job but rather in making everyone’s job good.