Gender, income and leadership

Rosie the riveter. I know this is super cliché, but I can't help but love it. We CAN do it, men and women together.

Rosie the riveter. This image is overused, but I still love it.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague over the gender-income disparity, and it made me question my assumptions around why exactly men earn more than women. I googled ‘gender and salaries’ and came across this article, highlighting a study that used the PayScale’s proprietary MarketMatch™ Algorithm to determine the correlation between gender and pay in the US.

The results showed that men really don’t earn that much more than women when comparing “apples to apples”, which surprised me. Men make about 1-4% more than women on average, beginning with the first job negotiation, where far fewer women than men negotiate their first salary at all. Regardless, both sexes experience almost exactly the same wage-growth rate until about the age of 39, when women’s salaries begin to plateau. Men’s salaries plateau much later, around 48.

I thought about why this difference might be, and it seemed logical to me that women are busier than men raising future generations, and indeed, a lot of studies are showing that women are generally more focused on creating work-life balance than men. Let’s face it: climbing the ladder in business often requires great sacrifice in other areas of life, and according to this article, women make less than men not due to discrimination, but rather because men are more likely to take jobs that are dangerous and uncomfortable, located in undesirable locations, require evening and weekend work, and involve higher job stress and specialization. This study also found that astoundingly, unmarried women without children actually earn more than unmarried men.

My curiosity grew. I wondered how often women occupy higher leadership roles of multinational corporations, such as the one I work for. Just as I was mulling this issue over, a colleague dropped an issue of Time Magazine on my desk with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gracing the cover.

Sheryl says that women’s lack of “leaning in” to leadership is to blame for the fact that only 14% of Fortune 500 boardroom chairs are occupied by women. They don’t get involved during critical conversations around shaping a company, she says, therefore losing the opportunity to display and develop their own leadership skills. Not only do they blatantly lean back during childbearing years, Sheryl suspects that they start leaning back years before, perhaps unconsciously avoiding future struggle with family-work balance at a later stage.

Not everyone agrees with Sheryl’s argument, accusing her of blaming the victim within a system of discrimination. Granted, women world-wide do not have the same opportunities as men. But in the west, I would venture to say that they do, despite some remnant discrimination of which all minorities experience (as well as shorter, white middle-class men). Anyway, Sheryl thinks discrimination is only the egg in a chicken-and-egg issue, and I get that. Not only do we have to remove discrimination, we have to create a replacement scenario. Women have to be at the big, shiny table in order to change the fact that more women are not at the table in the first place.

Women assessed based on past experience, men on potential
A 2011 McKinsey report found that women are promoted based on what they’ve already accomplished, whereas men are promoted based on their potential to lead. That’s just not fair, but again, it’s up to women to turn the table (or, as this factoid makes me want to do, turn it over Jesus-in-the-temple-style).

I sometimes remind my younger and extremely talented female colleague to use her daily work to her own career-excelling advantage, because that’s what her male colleagues do. It’s a crying shame to see her underestimated by superiors she could walk circles around, but it’s up to her to push herself through it. I tell her that if people don’t realize she’s great based on her driven character alone, then frankly it’s their problem, and she can always realize her ambitions within a more progressive company that sees how much larger the talent pool is when women are groomed to be leaders. Warren Buffet said it perfectly when pointing out that women can save the economy: “What a waste of human talent – 50% of the population was pushed off into the corner for 200 years.”

Women were always powerful
Upon this reflection, I realize that no matter what, women are powerful in their own right. Not as man-mimickers, but as women. Women have traditionally run households, worked jobs, raised our men and women, and no doubt kept men from coming undone through countless, bloody wars. They were also smart, ambitious, determined, and just as worthy as any man of running the show. Just like today.

I agree with Sheryl that women should take responsibility for rising above our historical limitations. I also think that women can offer a unique perspective to leadership, steering companies into a direction that treats employees with dignity and as spirits beyond human cogs in a machine. While women are shackled by the ridiculous multitasking myth, I do believe that women are generally better trained to consider the feelings of multiple people, a characteristic that companies are realizing is required in order to sustain themselves. They often refer to it in HR-speak as employee engagement and work-life balance, which is nothing more than treating employees as human beings who want to make a genuine contribution while also enjoying a fulfilling private life.

Female leaders do seem to be one-upping men lately in intellectual discussions around leadership ability, but that’s not to say men can’t be great leaders with amazing EQ’s, of course. I personally suspect that women more often than not bring a more human atmosphere to business, and the fact that around 4% CEO’s of today actually display psychopathic characteristics kind of says to me that power=being dominant and cold in today’s world. “Basically, when you get them talking, these people are different than human beings,” according to British journalist Jon Ronson. “They lack the things that make you human: empathy, remorse, loving kindness.” 

Now, my CEO is a nice person who I believe really cares for his employees. He gets it, and I fully support where he is taking my company. I also know that women can be ruthless leaders. Again, these are generalizations regarding averages.

In conclusion: the gender-gap is an exciting discussion with no easy way to summarize it. As Sheryl mentions in her book, it’s most essential that we don’t let the conversation stagnate. Both men and women need to keep the dialogue alive so that whether we’re in the office, in the field, at home with the children, or a combination of different roles, we can create an even better world. I envision a world with totally humane companies, allowing people to seek their full potential and live a full life, both inside and outside the workplace.


This is a very complicated and sensitive topic, and I don’t intend to offend men or women by supporting stereotypes. Please do challenge me if you disagree, happy to hear your take.


  1. webpatser

    I would like to see the referred article based on Europe statistics since it’s the largest, single currency, economy in the world. The work ethics in Europe and the US are so different, I wonder if that shows… For example: As a co-parenting dad with 42 holidays a year. I spend as much time as possible with my child, without affecting my career. If I would live in the US, this was not an option for me, since the ‘balanced-lifestyle’ for men is not accepted (unless you pay for it yourself).

  2. I was discussing this with my colleagues today, and while Dutch children are the happiest in the world according to UNICEF a few years back, the percentage of women in leadership positions is also very low, just above African countries like Botswana. I think this is because working part-time is very acceptable here in Holland….for women, that is, and it’s almost a cultural ‘push’ to go down that path (again, only my thoughts). So that’s both positive (for kids) and negative for women’s careers ultimately.

    I agree that we shouldn’t only focus on women getting more opportunities for leadership at work, but also on men getting more opportunities at home with the children (work/life balance). The fact that fathers only get TWO days after their babies are born in NL is shameful (in the US they probably get like 2 hours or something..I love my country but the amount of holidays they give people is borderline slavery). In some countries (I can’t recall which, I think Iceland?), they have papa day. Really, to me the bottom line is: if the economy is going to require that both parents work, then companies/government need to step up and provide better work life balance for mom AND dad.

    I do agree that these differing cultural conditions have a major impact on above, no doubt. It’s all interconnected.

  3. Also, it may be the largest single currency, but culturally different states the US are way more similar than say, comparing Greece with Finland or Poland with Denmark. Each country in Europe is so culturally different. Would be a difficult study, I would think.

  4. webpatser

    Yes… there are differences in Europe, but that gives a nicely balanced overall view.

  5. Evo,

    Hope this is the right post. Very well written; a balanced and rational analysis that considers opposing points of view fairly. Kudos on this, as they are well deserved.

    I thus do not take issue with your thoughts. Instead, what I think might happen is that once I’ve fully developed my ideas for my second book – and excellent pieces like this are quite helpful to me in challenging and refining my thoughts -, the result might be to undermine some of the philosophical / ideological assumptions underpinning some of your source material.

    If you’re familiar with Christopher Lasch’s modern classic of social criticism “The Culture of Narcissism,” much of my thinking occurs within his thesis of progressively worsening narcissism of society. This appears to happen on longer, multi-generational timescales. What an average person might perceive as normal in society (e.g., the entire concept of careers and organizational advancement), I am inclined to interpret as being an attribute of a narcissistic society.

    Perhaps it might be interesting once I get my two books out to see if the thoughts they articulate have any influence on your own opinions.

    Thanks for flagging this excellent post for me.



    P.S. Netherlands? Fantastic!

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