The American Bar Association Journal reported this week that women lawyers earn only 77 percent of the pay of their male counterparts. The article states that the income inequality exists at all level in the legal profession, from paralegals to judges. In fact, the article indicates that the higher one rises within the legal profession, the greater the income inequality, with female judges receiving only 71.8 percent of the pay received by their male counterparts.
One could argue that as a male I benefit from this paradigm. I often hear people talking about different kinds of “privilege” such as male privilege, or white privilege and I realize that in these statements, I’m the guy they’re talking about it. I’m a white male living in a society that has historically been ruled by white men. On the other hand, I also hold a nursing license and spent years in working in what many see as a female profession. When I think about those who are important to me, the image of a white male isn’t who first comes to mind. I think about my wife, a physician and an attorney, whom I’ve seen treated differently because of her gender. I think about my mother, a woman who raised two children largely alone, while working dead-end jobs as a secretary in what sociologists often call “the girls’ ghetto”. I think about the many women who have shown me friendship and respect, and who have given me their encouragement and support. I cannot imagine having the life that I have today without the support and contributions of women. They have been my teachers, my parent, my bosses, my colleagues, and my friends. Whatever privilege may exist for me, the injustice that the women in my life suffer causes harm to me too.
Granted, our society has made progress on many issues of inequality, but there’s a lot of work still to be done, even in the highly educated professions such as physicians and lawyers. Through my wife I have met many female physicians and they can all share stories of the disparate treatment they have suffered. It’s not just an income issue, it’s a form of insidious emotional abuse. I’ve heard many female physicians and lawyers talk about being accused of being mentally unstable and “not a team player” by colleagues and superiors when they asserted themselves. I saw one employer purchase new executive chairs for many of the male physicians my wife worked with, while her desk was outfitted with a dilapidated typist’s chair. When my wife approached her supervisor to ask for a new chair similar to those purchased for the male doctors, she was told that she could have one of the men’s old chairs.
A few years ago, I was walking across the grounds at the Chautauqua Institution, when I came across United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg giving a radio interview in which she talked about the gender discrimination she’s faced in her life and the improvements in the profession for women. Indeed, when one looks closely at Justice Ginsburg’s life it is evident that, despite her immense success, she had to work much harder and sacrifice in ways that her male colleagues did not. Prior to graduating from law school she was demoted in a government job when she became pregnant with her daughter. Despite being tied for the top graduating student in her class at Columbia law school, not a single New York law firm would hire her and Justice Felix Frankfurter refused her a clerkship based upon her gender despite strong letters of recommendation from the Deans of both Columbia and Harvard Law Schools. As she established her legal career, she was unusually fortunate to have a partner in her husband who was willing to support her career and to assume more of the homemaker role than most men of his, or even the current, generation. Her drive to excel and her commitment to work is exceptional. It is said that she returned to work at the Supreme Court the day after the death of Martin, her husband of 56 years.
We’ve failed to create justice for the women in our society. As a nation we’ve failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The law theoretically doesn’t allow discrimination by race, but discrimination by gender is allowed. Too often, we’re silent in the face of blatant sexism and gender discrimination. I’m watching the campaign of Hillary
Clinton in which the double standard for women is on full display. Secretary Clinton’s gender is being exploited by her Republican opponents such as Ted Cruz, when he announced to the press that Hillary Clinton deserves a spanking like his 5-year-old daughter. (I pity the child growing up with such a father). Despite my being a Bernie Sanders supporter (although I’m also perfectly happy with Hillary Clinton as the candidate), I can’t help but shake the feeling that many on the left who reject Hillary Clinton are doing so for gender related issues.
Sadly, it’s not just men who perpetuate this double standard, but many women have been so indoctrinated into the concept of gender inequality, that they go along with it too. So many times I’ve seen women attacking other women for standing up for themselves or for being successful. I’ve watched female nurses go out of their way to deliberately make life difficult for female physicians. I’ve been in the ER and have seen my wife have to fight to gain access to an exam room after being called into the ER to care for a child at 2:00 am, while the nursing staff bends over backward to accommodate the male physicians.
I don’t know how to fix this, but we’ve got to work on this problem that continues to permeate American culture. As a lawyer I’ve fought for the right of pregnant women to make their healthcare decisions. As a man, I don’t make comments on which women are sexy and which aren’t to my guy friends as we walk down the street. I do my best to show the women whom I encounter in my life respect, and to create relationships and an environment based upon mutual respect and dignity. I recognize that I probably don’t always do this perfectly, but this is where gender discrimination impacts me the most as a white male. I want to be able to have equal relationships with the women in my life. My simply treating women as equals isn’t sufficient because that doesn’t establish a right for the women in my life, but makes it a politeness or courtesy that I bestow upon the woman and continues the unequal power dynamic. I don’t want their choices constrained by their gender or societal judgment. Gender inequality might create an opportunity for me to be an ally, but it also creates a barrier to our finding connection as equals, and that’s a loss for both genders.