Updated: Oct 27
Male bosses and male-dominated workplaces consistently fail to recognise and elevate female talent. Rewards and promotions go to those who put in long hours. Men can take advantage of this system because they are emancipated by women who continue to shoulder the burden of social reproduction at home. Thus the contemporary system of employment is predicated on the domestic gender division of labour. Entrenching their first mover advantage, the male nomenklatura tends to disregard women’s expertise and resist family-friendly reforms. So, if you really want to level the playing field, it’s time to smash the fraternity.
Patriarchy has persisted for thousands of years. As long as women were lumbered with domestic drudgery and trapped in family farms, there was little escape. In Europe, men consolidated their advantage by establishing guilds that monopolised lucrative ventures and locked women out. Men’s dominance was entrenched by a plethora of fraternal orders - in government, the judiciary, religion, medicine and universities. Vulnerable women, with weaker social capital, struggled to protect themselves from persecution. As competing Catholic and Protestant churches sought to demonstrate their superior power to protect people from witchcraft, they burnt women in their thousands.
The Enlightenment heralded great transformation: Europe and North America became more scientific, secular and democratic. Inventors, entrepreneurs, and artisans thronged to discuss great discoveries. As peers praised innovation, others eagerly experimented and gained prestige. Taverns and coffee houses became hot-beds of collaborative creativity and political debate. Saloons were surprisingly conducive to patents! Members gained tremendous insider benefits: free-masons amassed knowledge, respectability, and elite patronage. Clubs also went to court to protect members’ reputations, enabling them to take far greater risks in the public sphere.
If you grant that this rich associational sphere catalysed innovations, surely you accept that women were disadvantaged through their forced exclusion? 95% of Enlightenment associations in England were male. Exceptions include London’s bluestocking gatherings and female debating societies, as well as Dutch women’s masonic lodges and scientific societies. But however gifted or determined, their contributions were generally derided. Brilliant women toiled in solitude, while men’s advances were amplified on megaphones.
Economic growth in the 20th century eroded gender inequalities. Seeing growing returns to skilled work, parents invested in education. Contraception, infant formula, electricity and washing machines were time-saving engines of liberation. As divorces soared in the ‘70s, many women ceased to rely on a male breadwinner. From housewife to career-girls, many pursued burgeoning opportunities in medicine, business, public administration, and law.
Shifts in demand and supply are not the whole story, however. Friendships and activism forged feminist consciousness. When bullied at work or unsupported at home, a woman turns to her friends. They empathise, lambast unfairness and celebrate shared victories. At West Point in the 1980s, women were much more likely to advance if they had female peers. So too in STEM today, female peers increase women’s chances of graduation. Notwithstanding an undercurrent of discrimination, women flooded leaky pipelines. And as more women thrived in traditionally masculine domains, others ceased to presume them less intelligent.
Continued progress is not inevitable. Despite advances in education, women remain trapped in lower-status, lower-paid employment. The same old Medieval barriers - care burdens and fraternal capital - scupper 21st century progress. As long as social reproduction is outsourced to women, they tend to ‘choose’ university courses and career paths that are compatible with care. Even when mothers apply for managerial roles, European and North American employers tend to discriminate. Fathers incur no such penalty. Gender (not race) is also the primary cause of black women’s lower earnings. Men are uniquely able to capitalise on (high-paying) jobs with longer hours, and so they leapfrog up the corporate ladder. Yet regardless of productivity, men are more likely to be promoted if their immediate boss is a man.
What's impairing men's judgement? Why are they so blinkered to women's expertise?
Male-bonding is part of the story, building trust and respect. Homosocial schmoozing - talking about sports and sharing smoke breaks - accounts for over a third of the gender pay gap at one Asian bank. Likewise in US big oil (where women comprise 38% of entry-level posts but only 10% of executives),
“The men at upper management were quite comfortable making seat-of-the-pants decisions with each other... They had lunch together, they played golf together, they trusted each other. If somebody is going to make a seat-of-the-pants decision, the other guy's going to say “fine.” A woman comes in and tries to make a seat-of-the-pants decision, same process, same gut kind of thing, you're not going to be trusted, you're not going to be believed”.
Men gain strength in numbers
Many observers have argued there are innate differences in gender preference for STEM. Confident in their success and eyeing higher pay, men disproportionately flock to computing, engineering and economics. But this cannot explain subsequent career trajectories: compared to other sectors, women who graduate in STEM are far more likely to leave. Instead, small initial differences in preferences have enabled men to establish gatekeeping dominance.
In male-majority undergraduate classes, men speak for longer, interrupt frequently and are much more assertive. Lone women lack influence. Even when women achieve top grades in physical sciences, the male majority rarely rate them as knowledgeable or want to study together. Sexism exists in STEM long before the motherhood penalty kicks in.
Compared to other professions, STEM typically offers flexible hours, shorter work weeks, parental leave, and is not exceptionally time-pressured. This should make it more compatible with motherhood. So why do qualified women exit in droves? The fraternity is the problem. In Norway and North America, male-majority workplaces hemorrhage female talent. This fact alone explains STEM’s exceptionally leaky pipeline.
Wherever men predominate (like San Francisco's tech firms), women face a gauntlet of hostile scrutiny. In entirely male municipal Italian councils, female mayors are less likely to survive their term. Anticipating low support, women are often reluctant to put themselves forward as leaders of male majority teams. Their contributions are dismissed and derided, while men free-ride on fraternal capital. When a female economist co-authors with men it does not improve her career prospects. She gets zero credit. Meanwhile men's contributions to group work are recognised and ultimately rewarded with tenure. Sociology has no such bias. Though historically male-dominated, women now earn 60% of PhDs and have built a more egalitarian culture. Professor Judith Seltzer recalled,
“When I first arrived at UCLA [twenty years ago], one of my senior colleagues, a very distinguished sociologist of women’s employment, told me that when she joined the faculty, it was so unusual for a woman to be a professor that people often thought she was a secretary for her male colleagues. That mistake would not happen today.”
What blocks family-friendly reforms?
Mothers (as compared to fathers) are much more likely to feel burnt out, be reluctant to even discuss burnout, worry they will be judged for working flexibly, and fear that remote work will jeopardise their careers. As chronicled in a recent survey of 423 US and Canadian companies, these concerns are heightened when women are alone, encircled by male colleagues. But if mothers are too anxious to even ask for flexible work, what hope is there for reform?
Pharmacy is an exception. Once male-dominated, it has become more female-friendly thanks to three structural shifts. First, large pharmacy chains (like CVS), hospitals and mail-order companies have replaced independent drug stores. Second, improved technology and insurance coverage mean that any pharmacist can access client records. A third important shift is product standardisation. As a result of these commercial, technological and organisational changes, pharmacists can now substitute for each other. This means that women can work part-time, with no loss in pay. The gender gap in earnings has narrowed. But note, this best case scenario of egalitarian transformation did not result from male managers’ enlightened self-interest.
Why is sexual harassment rarely punished?
The darkest side of fraternal capital is a violent culture of impunity. Sexual harassment remains rife in male dominated industries and under male management. Whether it is US gymnastics, campus fraternities, the UK police force or the Catholic Church, organisations that protect perpetrators encourage further assaults. Simone Biles articulated it perfectly: “I blame Larry Nasser and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse“.
Fraternal capital perpetuates male dominance. Men’s first mover advantage has been entrenched through 21st century organisational practices (lucrative long hours and unaffordable childcare), homosocial schmoozing (between male bosses and juniors), near impunity for sexual harassment, and the marginalisation of lone women.
How can we level the playing field? What about more workplace flexibility? Yes, mothers could then work longer hours, but it might not be initiated by male-majority nomenklatura. As long as there are sufficiently qualified men (eager to demonstrate dedication through long hours), managers needn’t accommodate care-giving. Lacking hope for reform, lone women are far more likely to leave.
Workplaces become more egalitarian when their gender composition changes: as women gain strength in numbers and seniority. Avenues to this end include subsidised childcare; much more flexible, substitutable and remote work; as well as gender quotas or payroll cuts for female management. Labour shortages may boost women’s bargaining power, so long as their jobs aren’t automated or usurped by men. But unless we smash the fraternity, our organisations will continue to power-charge less competent men.