Op-Ed: Why Does “Gender” Mean No Pay?

February 3, 2014
By

By Dean Laplonge

It’s not unusual for me to be approached by resource companies for advice. My research and work explore the topic of gender in male-dominated industries like mining, and oil and gas. And gender has become something of a buzz-focus in these industries.

why does gender mean no payI received such an invitation the other day from a mining company. This invitation started out by indicating that the company was “very interested” in my work, which they believe relates to their attempts to explore “ways of integrating women more fully into projects.” I was invited to come and share my experiences with them. There was no question about how much I might charge to provide such services. And I was clearly informed towards the end of the letter that my “travel and accommodation would be at your expense.”

Here’s how I read this invitation: Would you please pay out of your own pocket and give us your time freely to help us at least show that we are attempting to work on our gender issues, while we continue to thrive in one of the most profitable industries in the world.

To understand my anger, let’s change the topic of my field of work for a moment. Let’s imagine that instead of gender, my expertise is the physical design of mine sites. Instead of graduating with a Ph.D. in gender and culture, I came away with a Ph.D. in engineering. In my thesis, I developed an innovative response to some of the safety and cost issues involved in the design and production of new mine sites. I have since written extensively on this. I have worked with government departments to conduct research relevant to my area of expertise. And I have worked for resource companies to help them implement my ideas.

Do we imagine for one moment that I would now be invited to share my work and ideas with a mining company not just for free, but at my own expense?

This request for expertise on gender to be offered in return for no payment goes to the very heart of the gender problem in resource industries today. It exposes deeply embedded pro-masculine and anti-feminine beliefs, which have guided these industries for centuries.

As I note, there is a current buzz around gender in resource industries today. But this buzz fails to get anywhere close to helping resource companies and their employees understand the impacts of gender on their businesses and workplace cultures.

The buzz about gender is always and only about women. It’s about numbers of women in the workforce and numbers of women in leadership positions. The more women a resource company has, the better its gender culture will be, apparently. Why? Because women are assumed to have gender. It’s women who are the gender problem. And women, therefore, are believed to be the gender solution.

If this particular company had actually read any of my work, which they claim to be “very interested in,” they would have already appreciated that I do not see women as the gender problem. The work I do is not based on some misguided and sexist belief that women will naturally introduce softness, better communications, and more diversity into a workplace.

Instead, I argue that we can only ever hope to solve the gender problem in resource industries if we are willing to explore how organisations and workplaces help to produce particular practices of gender. We need to look at how we do gender at work and not at what gender we are when we go to work. And we absolutely must include in all of this scrutiny of men and masculinity—which are not necessarily the same thing.

The invitation I received made it clear that this company was not willing to do any of that. They wanted me to talk about women. And they wanted me to do this for free. Because women is gender. And gender is worth nothing.

In my reply, in which I declined the invitation, I urged the company to reflect on what the content of their letter reveals about their attitudes toward women. If women and gender are so closely aligned in their minds and practices, then what does it say about how they believe women deserve to be treated when they expect that those who work with gender should not be paid? Did this attitude help to partially explain the gender problem they are facing?

Resource industries are going round and round in circles trying to solve gender. They have been investigating it and responding to it for more than two decades, releasing endless and repetitive reports on “women in resources,” which never change their methodologies and never change their recommendations. And the result is that very little has actually changed. There has been no significant increase in the percentage of women in the workforce and the workplace cultures of resource industries continue to be dominated by practices of masculinity.

Yes, a few women have made it in the industry. We can hold them up as shining examples of gender work done well. We can even give them an award for women in industry at a women’s breakfast hosted by a women’s network—all of which show that the problem of gender has been solved not by addressing it, but by isolating it.

How much more unpaid work are gendered people expected to do? And what does it say about an industry that views knowledge on gender to be worth nothing? These are the kinds of questions resource companies and professionals need to be asking. Because if women truly are the solution to the gender problems faced by resource companies, then why did I receive this invitation from a woman?

_____________________________________

Dean Laplonge is a leading researcher and practitioner in the field of gender in resource industries. He is a Director of the cultural research company Factive (www.factive.com.au). His book, So you think you’re tough: Getting serious about gender in mining, is due out in March.

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8 Responses to Op-Ed: Why Does “Gender” Mean No Pay?

  1. Linda dockerty on February 3, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Hi Dean
    I work in a male dominated industry and I do find it very difficult I encounter loads of comments about being female even though I know my job extreamly well men will comment and openly say I’m not taking that from her yet if a male says exactly the same as me then nothing is said. I am seriously thinking of going to university to study gender differancies. I work at a university that openly shows disrespect for women and their role in the work place. It’s about time the management structure was changed or certainly their opinion of women and how they stand out from the crowd. It’s as though they love to keep you down especially if you have made it quite clear they have made a wrong decision or that you have an opinion that differs to theirs.

  2. Lisa Fisher on February 3, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    I found your article very interesting and relevant.

    However, my comment is on a broader scale – It is not JUST gender issues which are frustrating us with the ‘no pay’ requests, it is everything! No one wants to pay consultants/experts/speakers for anything! I see this on many levels. Our company (geoscience & engineering based) has a consulting branch, and you would not believe how many calls we get asking us to ‘look into’, ‘give an initial evaluation’, or develop a project for no pay or for pennies (less than $10/hour). Even if stock is offered (not always a good investment for our time!) there just isn’t any way you can run a business without actual income. Ours is not the only company getting these ‘offers/requests’, several colleagues complain of the same.

    Is this a lack of respect for professionals, or just miserly? These requests come to both male and female members of the consultancies – so no particular gender discrimination there.

    There are exceptions – for instance, when a non-profit group or school asks a speaker to come in, they may not have the budget to pay a fee or expenses. That needs a different consideration.

  3. Michelle on February 3, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    That’s absolutely galling, particularly the expectation that you would pay for your own travel. I’m curious about the various intersections that create this problem. For example, a good friend of mine does improv workshops to supplement her salary as a professor, and she is paid very well by investment bankers and venture capitalists in spite of the fact that lots of improv training happens beyond the world of credentials. On the other hand, in her role as an education researcher, she is often expected to use and share her expertise for free. I’m not sure if my point is clear, but I’m curious about how a person’s realm of expertise, their credentials, and the norms of the field that is hiring them intersect to determine their renumeration.

  4. Charlotte on February 8, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    This put down may not be related to gender but to lack of respect for something “we don’t do”. For a mining company their thing is very tangible. Knowledge is intangible – they don’t know how to evaluate it. For task oriented people, people issues are something fluffy.
    We all suffer from cognitive dissonance when something we don’t do is extremely important. If we don’t get it, either it is not important or we are stupid. Guess which point of view is easier to live with.

  5. Lisa Brough on February 9, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    It seems to me that your problem with compensation is a reflection of supply and demand. To borrow the engineer example you cited, a company will pay dearly for improvements to their processes which could increase their profits. Meanwhile, the services you provide would be unlikely to significantly boost their bottom line.

    I suppose it comes down to the question of whether or not private companies are right to prioritize making money over social justice etc. Some would argue they are, others would disagree.

    Your conclusion that gender is simply not very important to these companies is probably correct. But why would it be? Do they risk monetary gains or government involvement by maintaining the status quo while giving lip service to the notion of gender equality?

    In other words, why would a private company pay you for your services? What would you do to give them a leg up on their competition? If it is in their interest to hire you, you should make it abundantly clear why that is. I suspect some sort of PR gain would be the only real benefit, which explains why you aren’t getting paid.

  6. Lisa fisher on February 10, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    I have not found your statement to be true:

    “a company will pay dearly for improvements … which could increase their profits”

    In my experience, this problem of non- or low- compensation for consultants occurs across the board – from big companies to small, no matter what they stand to gain from using the consultants; tangible or intangible, gender based or not, industry vs education based (I’ve often had good experiences with education based consulting).

    Obviously there are good companies out there that act ethically and do equitably compensate consultants. However it seems many do not, and gender is only part of the problem. We have met some of each.

  7. Lisa Brough on February 11, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    I think profit maximization has a lot to do with the compensation given to consultants, but so do industry norms and company culture; many leaders have convinced themselves they don’t need help from outsiders as only they know how to run their company.

    In my experience, the most valuable skill a consultant can have is convincing an organization that 1) they need help and 2) the consultant can help them. Thats basically the point I was trying to make re: this article. If a gender consultant can help a company make money, they better be able to make a damned good case as to how and why.

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