God bless our Patreon supporters. Seriously. In our April topic poll, I gave them several non-depressing softball article topics. But the one they wanted to read most was about the relationship between sexual assault and the gender wage gap. GOD. DAMN. You guys are the fucking best. We are so happy to be supported by people who are willing to embrace the difficult stuff.
The gender wage gap is a many-tentacled hentai monster. What is its primary driver? Is it choice of career? Education? Lack of mentors and sponsors? Familial commitments? The high cost of childcare? Lopsided domestic duties? Ingrained sexist attitudes in the culture? Unconscious bias during the hiring process? Biological differences in the brain?
Research demonstrates that it’s almost certainly a gnarly combination of all of the above. But there’s another element that doesn’t get much attention, and that’s fear of rape and sexual assault. Harassment and isolation are known contributing factors for so-called “pipeline” problems, but I’m talking about something that goes even beyond that. There are instances where the threat of rape acts as a professional barrier to women.
So today, we’re going to look at three different case studies: two from my own life and one from recent news. The last one is very exciting to me, because it’s basically the perfect case study for examining this issue.
This article talks about the existence of rape and sexual assault, but does not go into details about specific acts. Some linked articles do. Use that information as you will.
Case #1: Blue Collar Work
A salesman for Power Home Remodeling recently visited my home. It was a door-to-door call, which is normally a nonstarter—but I happened to be interested in the service he was offering, so I let him make his sales pitch.
I was struck by this salesperson’s energy. He looked like a college kid and was brimming with excitable-puppy energy. But even more striking was his description of the company work environment. He gabbed about a huge annual company trip to Cancun, all expenses paid. I told him it sounded like a fraternity party. “Oh, very much so, yes,” he told me earnestly, with just a hint of sheepishness. “It gets pretty wild.”
I smiled at him and said, “You must not have many women on the team.”
He shook his head. “You have no idea how true that is. A big part of selling is doing what I’m doing now—walking into stranger’s houses. Women don’t want to do that. You don’t know if you’re going into a creeper’s house alone. We’d love to have more women, but I don’t blame them for staying out of sales.”
Surprised by his candor, I pressed a little further. “Not many people of color either, huh?”
“Not really,” he said, shrugging. “We have one person on my team with darker skin—an Indian guy. He has to work ten times harder than I do to make a sale. People won’t open the door for him. I at least know that people are going to let me introduce myself, and not try to chase me off with a shotgun. So yeah, it tends to be all young white guys, for understandable reasons. Sort of a chicken-and-egg thing.”
“If it’s a known problem at the company, is anyone working on it?” I ask. “Do you have a chief diversity officer, or anyone like that, whose job it is to find ways to fix it?”
He shrugs. “I don’t really know, to be honest.”
He presses on with his sales pitch. During the pitch, he mentions that “both homeowners” really should be present. In fact, he mentions it four times. He persists even after I inform him that the house is in my name alone. When he finally relents, it is as though he’s made some kind of special exception for me.
I’m personally not nervous to have this obsequious, casually sexist stranger in my home. My two large dogs are sitting at my feet. I have my phone in my hand. My neighbor works from home, and his house is close enough that he can hear me if I scream. I know which doors are locked, which windows don’t have screens, which door frame has a baseball bat leaning against it. My home is where I feel safest and most powerful.
I’m sure this is the case with most people—including men. Which is why I instinctively avoid entering men’s homes alone, especially men I do not know. I am afraid to put myself in their power. To be explicit: I’m afraid of being physically overpowered and raped or murdered. And that is the only reason.
This fear repels me from being a door-to-door salesperson. The last time I was making door-to-door sales, I was a Girl Scout selling cookies. Even at eight years old, I had learned to conduct all business from the front porch. And maybe it’s not a big deal. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be a salesperson anyway.
But then I thought about it more. In all my years of house calls from landlords, property managers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, cable installers, home inspectors, delivery people… I couldn’t think of a single time that it had been a woman. (Mr. Kitty says our pellet stove repairperson was a woman, SO THERE’S ONE!) Statistics back up my anecdotal experience. Women make up only 1.5% of plumbers, 1.6% of carpenters, 2.6% of maintenance and repair professionals, 3.7% of telecommunications installers… Basically, jobs that require house calls repel women.
I looked up the leading cause of death for women while on the job.
Surprise! It’s homicide.
Case #2: White Collar Work
I’ve mentioned that I work for a large technology company with a household name and an international presence. In most situations, it’s quite cool—we can have people from the American South, the Pacific Northwest, the eastern coast of Canada, Ireland, India, and Indonesia all together on one call.
One downside of this international collaboration is time zones. When I’m coming online first thing in the morning, my coworkers in Mumbai are sitting down to eat dinner with their families. It’s a complicated give-and-take; everyone at some point is required to take calls outside of their normal working hours. We tend to schedule so that the fewest number of people are inconvenienced.
Recently we ran into an issue that complicated things. We’d promoted several women in the Mumbai offices to a highly technical role that required daily interaction with engineers in America. The American engineers are by far the largest constituency on the call, so it’s scheduled on North American time.
But there is a problem. Our Indian offices have a company policy that forbids women from leaving the building after hours without a security escort.
The explicit purpose of this security escort is to deter men from raping women.
This security policy ends at a certain time, because the security guards need to go home at some point. When their shift ends, all women are escorted from the building whether they’ve finished their work or not. The after-hours calls our recently-promoted Indian team members needed to take were scheduled for after the security escort’s closure.
My company still hasn’t figured out this problem. This problem isn’t unique to our offices. Businesses everywhere are struggling to address it. Right now, the women are just not making it to these calls, and they have to rely on written reports, limiting their ability to contribute meaningfully to the process.
Recently, someone floated the possibility of circumventing the problem by selecting only men for this role in the future.
Women in India make 25% less than men.
Case #3: Gig Economy Work
A recent study at Uber revealed that—controlling for all variables— male drivers make more money per hour than female drivers. 7% more, to be exact.
This flies in the face of accepted narratives about why women earn less money, because Uber removes many variables common in traditional hiring practices. There’s no negotiation for pay. Raises aren’t a thing. And the work runs on a flexible schedule by design.
Further, passenger sexism was ruled out as the cause. Riders weren’t tipping men more than women. So how was one gender still out-earning another?
Ultimately the researchers were able to identify several reasons. Half of the earnings gap was explained by differences in driving speed—statistically, men drive faster than women, allowing them to fit more passengers into each hour.
What about the other half of the earnings gap? Well, let’s split that into two reasons again. First: driver experience translates directly into higher earnings, and women quit driving at much higher rates than men. Second: men and women choose to drive in very different places, with more men congregating at locations with higher surge pricing and lower wait times.
The researchers theorize that this is due to the threat of sexual assault and violence.
The dynamic of one driver and one passenger is dangerous for women living in a culture that views their vulnerability as an opportunity. Multiple male Uber drivers have been charged with sexual assault. And multiple female Uber drivers have been sexually assaulted by their male passengers.
Driving to places with high surge pricing (like bars or shows at closing time) could make women leery of being attacked in their own car. The same holds true for driving to airports, a lucrative trip that requires women to drive through depopulated industrial areas alone with unknown passengers.
Only 27% of Uber drivers are women, and 76% of them leave the platform after six months.
“I left it at home!”
Wanda Sykes has a legendary standup bit that goes like this: what if women’s vaginas were detachable? What if you could just leave it at home?
Part of the bit describes her going for a jog after dark. A would-be rapist pops out to menace Wanda, but she shrugs and says “Oop—I left it at home! Sorry. I have absolutely nothing of value on me.” The rapist, disappointed, leaves her alone, and she continues on her imagined night jog.
I think about this bit a lot. For one, it’s breath-snatchingly funny. But more significantly, when I think about what it would actually be like, I feel an enormous sense of relief wash over me. Walking around with a female body feels like walking around with $10,000 in your pocket. You live you life in a state of CONSTANT VIGILANCE!! (Minimum one Harry Potter reference per article, part of our terms and conditions, read the fine print.)
The fear of sexual assault is so pervasive that it shapes women’s actions both consciously and unconsciously. It encompasses everything, from the jobs we seek to the places we go. As long as that fear exists, the gender wage gap will persist.
People of all genders deserve to move through the world without fear of sexual assault or the humiliation of being perceived as a potential rapist. Masculinity is not inherently violent, and femininity is not a state of perpetual victimization. These bizarre perversions exist only because our culture has a long legacy of embracing them. To change rape culture, we must change our thinking and our behavior, make concerted challenges to the status quo.
To paraphrase Eliezer Yudkowsky: “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.”
There are many, many things that both women and men can do to fight rape culture. And most of it isn’t pussy hats and marching with signs! Whether you’re interested in loud activism or quiet advocacy (introverts, we feel ya), somebody’s made a list of things you can do.
You can also check these classic articles from our archive:
- 1 Easy Way All Allies Can Help Close the Gender and Racial Pay Gap
- Something Is Wrong in Personal Finance. Here’s How To Make It More Inclusive.
- Woke at Work: How to Inject Your Values into Your Boring, Lame-Ass Job
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