I had burgers and beer recently in a local bar with a female friend who's a civil rights attorney now but at one time worked as the chief HR officer of a corporation. The topic came up when a news story ran about a woman claiming she was passed over for a position in favor of a man with less experience, less education, and less seniority.

After listening to the details as presented on TV, she said, "Sounds like she has no case. Most of the time they have no case. It's depressing."

"No case? Why not?" I asked. Here, in paraphrase form is what she told me:

"Because" she said, "there usually is a plausible reason offered by the employer to justify their action. And unfortunately women by their nature often supply the company with reasons to pass them over for pay and promotions. Much of the time you can't fault the company, either. They aren't doing it to spite women. They're capitalists. If they're smart, they'll favor the person who's most valuable to the company."

"What do you mean about it being due to a woman's nature?"

"Women tend to take family commitments more seriously than men, so they are the ones who take the kid to the pediatrician or to the big soccer meet or who stay home when the kid gets the flu. Can you blame an employer for not taking this into account? Their sole obligation is to be profitable. Companies favor employees who favor their bottom line."

"Beyond that, more women smoke than men. Smokers almost never miss a break. What this means is that they are less likely to skip their break even in an emergency." It hit me that if I did drive past a business where some of the workers were on break, the majority tended to be women, and sometimes all of them were women.

"But," I responded, "employers aren't supposed to penalize people for taking breaks. It's illegal." "They probably don't do that specifically, but it's part of the overall impression that forms in the boss's mind."

She went on. "Women don't advance as well as men overall. If there's a 'glass ceiling,' it's of their own making. Women form tighter bonds with their coworkers and so are less likely to strive for a promotion that would take them away from their friends. Women, especially with children at home, are less likely than men to accept promotions involving a lot of travel. Likewise, a juicy promotion across the country that takes them away from their extended family is a lot less attractive to a typical female worker than a typical male. Furthermore, it means a lot of women simply are less committed to work than their male counterparts."

"One more thing," she continued. "There's the mating thing. Very few men even think of their place of employment in terms of partner potential (beyond the possibility of getting laid), but a lot of women see the workplace as a place where they might find a life partner. And whether they meet a life partner at work or not, they are much more likely to be the half of the couple who leaves their job because of it."

"Finally, some jobs are undeniably physically more suitable to men than women. You know, the heavy lifting type of position. lThat sort of work is both less attractive to women and often much better done by men for obvious physical reasons."

"It's because of all of these things that women make less than men and don't advance as well as men. If we could factor all of those things out we'd be left with the part of it that's due to sheer prejudice against women. But when we did, we'd probably find that while women are at a disadvantage, it's not nearly as much as it seems to be based on the raw statistics."

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I don't disagree with what was said but some of it does seem flawed. I personally would not turn down a promotion simply because it meant less time with my friends but I'm well aware that many women take the "Mommy track" instead of a straight career track. You can't expect to have the same promotion opportunities if you miss several weeks or months of work because you chose to take the time off to care for a newborn. You can't expect to be asked for a promotion when you're taking days off to care for a sick whoever while your spouse goes to work regardless of who in the household is sick.

That said, I'm a paramedic and my company has round the board pay. They have a base rate and they have a percentage that they pay you more, upon hiring, for years of experience. It's a known algorithm and I know, for a fact, that if I asked another paramedic at the company with my same work experience what they were getting paid, it would be the same amount I am. Now, if I took a year off to stay at home with a child and a male coworker didn't, he'd have another year of experience than I do thus qualifying for extra pay and a higher chance at a supervisor position if one comes open. Should I be upset over presumed lost wages? No. I chose to take a year off. Should we have children, my husband can take a year off instead of me; it's all the same in my eyes. I get paid more than him anyway... for the same job; I just started two years before he did.

Anecdotes don't disprove generalizations. There are always exceptions. In my own experience, it's true that women more than men tend to want to remain physically close to their parents, family members, and friends, and don't like the disruptions of leaving a comfortable nest to build another one elsewhere. They may also be more likely to defer to a partner (male or female!) who doesn't want to undergo relocation.

These women and the "mommy track" women, in included in the statistics, skew the results and make the results very hard to interpret. Women are women and men are men and, barring individual exceptions (on both sides) will tend to make different sorts of choices affecting pay and advancement opportunities and whether they will take advantage of opportunities.

The real question of how well womn who are willing to "man up" and make the same choices men would make in a given situation would do is...this is much harder to answer.

Personally, I do believe that some people in business are prejudiced against women. They may simply not want to take the risk of hiring a woman who may get pregnant, may be the one in the family who takes on more responsibility for the children, and may not be willing to serve the needs of the company when the time comes (e.g., by agreeing to a relocation). This is a rational choice on one level, though it may be a wrong one on another level, since the woman hasn't done anything yet to deserve this kind of prejudgment. At the same time, I'm sure a lot of HR decisions are based on such speculation in ways affecting men as well as women.

That's personally a study I would like to see: a comparison of women who chose not to start a family and how advanced they got in their careers compared with men in the same field. There could be a secondary study of men who took time off to raise a family while their spouses worked compared with women who made the same choice. I think that would be a more accurate telling of the work and pay situation. 

I agree. A study showing that women make less and leaving it at that leaves WAY too many possible explanations unexplored. I like to believe that, on the whole, business owners are rational and make their decisions based on what benefits the bottom line and the ownership. Let's face it: businesses are not run primarily to benefit the employees. I suspect an employee-owned and -run business quickly discovers some of the realities of hiring some types of people rather than others.

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