A response to Professor Jordan Peterson’s explanation of the gender pay gap

In January this year, Professor Jordan Peterson discussed the gender pay gap with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman, an interview that has been watched more than seven million times online. It wasn’t her finest hour and that detracted somewhat from the massive flaws in his argument. In it he argues that whilst prejudice may exist he does not believe it is the major factor.  Accepting that women are segregated from men in the labour market in both horizontal and vertical ways he explains this segregation and the ensuing pay differentials as being  largely a natural reflection of differences between men and women.

He also maintains that the dominant explanation put forward by others (particularly feminists which he says with an emphasis denoting disapproval) for the gender pay gap is that it is caused by oppression and the oppressive patriarchy .  First things first. No one who works in this area thinks that there is a single cause of the gender pay gap. I agree as he says so often particularly when he gets a difficult question – it’s complicated. He also fails to understand that patriarchy as a concept describes a system of social relations that enables men to dominate women … not that all men do this or that all women are victims. In short he displays a poor understanding of the history of women’s employment and feminism.

Now Professor Peterson is incredibly influential and has a huge following among young men.  These young men seem hungry for the kind of advice on life Professor Peterson is dishing out. Much of it is common sense and hard to disagree with e.g. the kind of things a good parent would say, like clear up your bedroom and take responsibility for yourself. If young men lap up his views on life it is important to hear what he is saying about men and women. It is also important to challenge him. I will only discuss the gender pay gap in this post but his explanation for this reveals his attitudes to gender relations more widely.

Those of us in the business and all those who worked so hard to measure the pay gap for their reports know full well that it is a fairly basic measure of a complex picture. And it is being discussed in the media  as if it is the be all and end all of equality in the workplace. It isn’t. It is a useful tool to analyse the position of men and women at work using specific organisational data.

My main criticism is that Peterson draws  on psychology to provide his explanations and his approach lacks a historical and cultural context.  Explaining men and women’s differences in their position in society and the workplace through the discourse of psychology and biology fails because it leaves out power and the social and cultural impact of men’s power over women since time began.

Firstly Peterson accepts the concept of work as being neutral. There are neutral workplaces and men and women go into them. But huge amounts of research have shown just how gendered the very concept of work is as well as workplace cultures.  (Hearn 1992, Collinson and Collinson 1989, Rutherford 2011) We cannot look at the gender pay gap without acknowledging that men and women are situated differently in the labour market as well as in wider society. The public world of work has been developed around men’s lives and has largely remained unchanged despite women entering the workforce in huge numbers over the past forty years.

A second criticism following this is, as I wrote above, his lack of historical and cultural context.  His mistake is to assume that men and women started out at the same place and that the natural order or biology  makes men do certain jobs and women others and that is why the pay is different.  But women have only had the vote for one hundred years.   Women have only been allowed to graduate from universities for a similar amount of time. Women were barred from all the professions until the 1920’s and were only allowed on to the Stock Exchange floor in 1973.  Virginia Woolf wrote about women’s exclusion from the public world fifty years ago. Working class women  had to work to survive and different rules applied. But middle class women, once they were allowed to work, had to give it up when they married.  The marriage bar was not removed in certain professions until the late 1950’s and teaching until the early 1960’s. If anyone has any doubt about the resistance to women entering the workplace it is worth reading some of the accounts in Parliament at the time. What jobs women do and don’t do, can and cannot do has less to do with what they choose and more to do with the development of a labour market that has exploited their availability and lower social status. Let’s not forget that in 1970 before the implementation of the Equal Pay Act in 1975 it was legal to pay a woman less than a man for the same job… so the gender pay gap then was 48% – does Professor Peterson put this down to women’s choice?

Because Peterson argues that the uneven distribution of men and women in the workplace is a  matter of choice – ““Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them alone to do it of their own accord. We’ve already seen that in Scandinavia. It’s 20 to one female nurses to male… and approximately the same male engineers to female engineers,” he explains.”

The cultural attachments of work as male and female are incredibly powerful but they too can and do change and vary from culture to culture.  Women are now bus drivers – unthinkable only a matter of twenty five  years ago. When their work was required during the First World War women took over all manner of male jobs only to be pushed out of them at the end of the War. Men were secretaries before women were allowed to work. In India low caste women work in construction on the roads. There are some jobs which require physical strength which may suit men more than women but many of our ‘divisions’ today are pretty artificial and are more to do with cultural meanings and historical hangovers  than any real rational reason.

Skills are not neutral either, they are gendered and we value some over others.  So if we gauge  value by how much people are paid, in this country we value refuse collectors and train drivers more than we do cleaners and nurses. Why is this? Peterson seems to accept that being an engineer is a higher status job and therefore better paid than nursing but doesn’t ask why?

Why, if men and women are actually drawn to different types of work, is it  that men’s work is almost always better paid than women’s. Is it that women’s lower social status attaches itself to work which then assumes that lower status? When women enter highly prized areas of work dominated by men in great numbers, the status of that work will usually go down. 

What the gender pay gap did rather well was break down the quartiles making visible how heavily male the top of almost all organisations were. Professor Peterson suggests this is also a choice and  that women do not want to rise to these levels. How does he know this? Why is he accepting that long hours are a necessary part of the work itself and not just a cultural barrier which does a good job at keeping women out? In the 1970’s and 1980’s long hours as such didn’t exist like they do now but then there were other barriers more structural to keep women out of well-paid management positions.

Our working patterns have developed around the lives of men who had and still do have the ‘other side of life’ looked after for them. Women’s choice to have a family or a good career is not a choice. It is presented as one because the terms of the discourse have been set by men. Senior men can only do these jobs if the ‘other side of life’ is picked up by their partner or wife. If a woman has a partner who takes main responsibility for family and domestic life then she really does have a choice.

He also cites women’s predisposition to agreeableness, one of the  Big Five personality traits as a reason they are not in more senior positions at work. He sees this agreeableness  as conflicting with organisational hierarchies where people (men) with less agreeableness are better at negotiating and demanding higher paid and more powerful positions. So women remain in lower positions in an organisation.

There is another way of looking at this.  Peterson  says that women’s nurturing instincts which required her to be on demand and agreeable twenty four hours a day  for the first nine months of a baby’s life possibly tuned her nervous system which whilst suitable for the unspoken demands of a baby  made her less suitable for the demands of business and dealing.

If we use the biology discourse then how about  we also say that a woman’s programming for looking out for her young may make her much better at multitasking, time management and forecasting  future risk in business, some things men are not so good at? Indeed there was a flurry of academic research on this particularly in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It was contended that women balanced out men’s tendency to exaggerate, be impulsive, be too blinkered and speculative.  I have argued elsewhere that the skills women learn at home are invaluable to being a good manager. Yet they are still rarely acknowledged or valued.

Academics  have questioned the value placed on status seeking and risk taking in business – masculinity here could be problematized as being an impediment to success, rather than women not fitting the mould.   Emphasising women’s difference to men is fraught with difficulties as it tends to be used to justify women’s inequality and leads to essentialism. In the end it is not about difference it is about what is valued.

I think women have changed more than men.  Today men are having to adapt to a world where women are  learning beside them, working beside them, competing with them and there seems to be some resistance. Instead of pandering to youthful  male insecurities which fans the flame of resentment  by blaming feminism,  Professor Peterson would help his young fan base so much more by imploring them to open up, talk about their  concerns and learn to embrace women as their equals.