Women Don't Feel Comfortable Discussing The Pay Gap's Emotional Fallout — And That's Part Of The Problem

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Tuesday, April 10 is National Equal Pay Day, which aims to highlight the differences that persist between men's and women's salaries for the same jobs. But the pay gap extends beyond gender. There's a gap in how black and white folks are paid for the same work. There's a gap in how trans and cis folks are paid for the same work. And there's a gap in how disabled and able-bodied people are paid for the same work. They all deserve attention, and that attention extends beyond simply teaching "financial empowerment" or "self-advocacy" tips in the workplace. We need to be talking about the emotional fallout from the pay gap — how the pay gap affects people on a daily basis.

In a capitalist system where we're conditioned to believe that our worth as humans is based on our labor in the workforce, it's vital to interrogate how consistently undervaluing the work of marginalized communities further marginalizes them. Being (and feeling) undervalued over time can erode our confidence, degrade our relationships, and weigh on our overall mental health and emotional fulfillment. But when I asked women to speak to these side-effects of the pay gap, I was met with overwhelming reluctance. Multiple financial experts and titans of industry "didn't feel comfortable" discussing their personal experiences with the wage gap or speaking to their emotions about it — although they were all too willing to give women tips, offer advice, and educate.

"I wish I could say titles didn’t matter but unfair titles lead to confusion and can affect confidence."

The problem is that many, many women already know that their work is being undervalued. "The last five years, I’ve worked at various-sized startups and have unfortunately experienced both pay and titles gaps, regardless of work quality or years of experience," Carli, 26, tells Bustle. "Not receiving a title you deserve, while seeing men in the company enjoy higher titles and likely higher salaries, can be very demotivating. I wish I could say titles didn’t matter but unfair titles lead to confusion and can affect confidence; I was once asked if I reported into someone who is my peer, based on our unequal titles."

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To offer women like Carli an "education" in their own experiences is tone-deaf at best and condescending at worst. There's value and empowerment in education, sure. But there's also value in making space for women to claim their emotions about a problem that's, quite frankly, embarrassing for us to be grappling with in 2018. And part of making space for people's emotions and validating them is not immediately jumping in with tips, advice, and "fixes," as anyone who's ever been to couple's counseling can attest. Policing women's workplace behaviors is not going to move the needle on the wage gap, just like policing women's workplace behaviors doesn't affect whether or not they're harassed. Women could be behaving perfectly, following all advice given, and implementing every tip, and the wage gap would still exist. That's how unconscious bias works.

In the past, Britt, 29, struggled with pay discrimination because of her marital status. She'd been told "indirectly" by her superiors that she'd be considered ineligible for or undeserving of raises because she was single.

"Being single and successful is a dangerous combination," she tells Bustle. "I know it's confused my superiors when I've asked for a raise because they all had families and they couldn't understand why I should be paid more. I even had an assigned male mentor ask me once, 'Why are you so driven?' which was obviously really upsetting. I've been shocked how often personal circumstances become part of the salary discussion."

"It feels really unfair that I have to constantly make my boss aware of what I'm doing to justify a raise."

Of course, women are also discriminated against in the workplace for having families, working while pregnant, requiring maternity leave, and needing a more flexible work schedule. It's lose-lose no matter what they do and to imply that women's actions are the primary obstacle in their quest for equal pay ignores the realities of systemic oppression.

Britt adds that constantly self-advocating while also trying to focus on doing her job is exhausting.

"It feels really unfair that I have to constantly make my boss aware of what I'm doing to justify a raise," she says. "I am always one to go above and beyond, but I've felt taken advantage of several times because my superiors (mostly men) knew that I'd do the work regardless of getting a raise. It's really tough to feel like there is not a right or wrong way to close the wage gap for yourself. Part of the issue with the wage gap being so prevalent is that women know it's real and sometimes we just don't want to fight it. It shouldn't be a war, but it often is."

If we've learned anything from #MeToo, it's that to enact meaningful policy changes, we have to make space for the collective grief cycle to exist — for people to share their experiences and emotions about those experiences, to actually be heard instead of plastered over with advice, and for others to hear those stories and recognize they're not alone.