Lower Paid, But Happy! Why Are Female Workers OK With This State Of Things?

Posted: April 17, 2017

Research shows that despite hardships, (paid) female workers are as happy as their male counterparts. What explains this? Here’s an in-depth look.

Some time ago, I wrote an article on Women in IT and was then approached to examine a related topic: What keeps female workers happy despite the many challenges they face? I felt I had already written all that I had experienced, and wondered what else I could say.

However, when I started researching on the topic, I realized that a lot more remained to be said.

In my last article I talked about gender discrimination at the workplace in terms of pay parity, career progression and how social pressures shape the career choices of women.

Some of the relevant hard stats are as under:

  • Women in India comprise 48.5 % of the population compared to 50.8% in the U.S. There are only 89 females for every 100 male child born in India.
  • We have poor representation of women in the Indian work force, despite a rising female education level. Detailed stats on the same are found in articles like these.
  • The poor participation of female workers continues despite women closing the higher education gap. (45.9% of all enrolled undergraduate students in India are women.)
  • There is a gaping disparity in pay and promotion of women as compared to their male counterparts in the work force even though the gender pay wage gap is shrinking: Women earn 56% of their male colleagues for the same work. Paradoxically, the pay gap increases as women rise in their careers.
  • There is still poor representation of women in Middle Management in the corporate sector and almost non-existent representation in senior leadership and executive roles.

Why then are women still contented at work?

Despite these problems, there is also another phenomenon – the paradox of the ‘Contented Female Worker’. This was originally the subject of a 1994 paper published in a Social Psychology Journal and has been a subject of research for various scholars in social psychology.

I felt compelled to share what the study had to say:

The ‘paradox of the contented female worker’ said that although women have jobs with lower pay and lesser authority then men, they are as satisfied with their jobs and employers as their male counterparts. The paper examined 5 possible explanations for the paradox:

  • Women’s lesser job rewards are perceived as equitable because they are matched by lower job inputs. (I wonder if this is fact or perception because women definitely tend to work more not just at the workplace but at home too – but then the work at home does not even go into a definition of work.)
  • Women’s lesser pay is considered equitable because women compare themselves with other women who are also paid lesser.
  • Although women have lower pay, they do not necessarily feel entitled to higher pay, and thus are not dissatisfied with pay.
  • Men value pay and authority more highly then women.
  • It also found that for both men and women, satisfaction is determined by subjective rewards rather than salary related factors.

I felt that this paper was written in 1994 and now we are in 2017 – though the reality has not changed dramatically, but at least the reasons would have changed.

So, I started digging further and came across a recent Gallup survey of female workers in the U.S.

Gallup has discovered some crucial findings:

  • Pay is less of a factor than other workplace attributes are in women’s employment decisions.
  • Work is personal for all women. A woman’s decision to work or not to work depends on numerous influences in her life — career aspirations; life goals; economic realities; societal pressures; and expectations of parents, partners and even in-laws.
  • For mothers, the one factor that had the greatest influence on their decision to stay in the workforce or leave was – children.
  • Men and women have different definitions of ‘full-time’ employment. Men report working more hours per week than women do. Perceptions of hours worked can influence pay.
  • Outdated company cultures and policies affect women personally and professionally.

Therefore, the survey had this to say about what influences women’s decisions in the work place:

  • Staying with a company only for paychecks and benefits isn’t appealing enough
  • Fit, flexibility and stability all matter in a job search
  • Women want their work to matter and to have meaning

Work-life balance and personal well-being have different meanings for different women, but they often pertain to family-friendly policies and flexible scheduling.

I started looking around at my circle of colleagues and friends in the workforce – most of whom are pretty contented in their work despite knowing they are not paid what they deserve. This forced me to deliberate on the reasons for this behavior and here are my two cents on it.

Do women look at work in a fundamentally different manner?

I believe that we don’t see work as a source of money – we see it as source of financial independence.

Ask any woman why she wants to work or any mother why she wants her daughter to work and the answer you will get is that it is very important for a woman to be financially independent. Only then can she earn the right to have a say of her own, to ask for equality in society.

I remember the story my mother used to tell me about how my maternal grandmother would always tell her that she would not marry her off till she gets a job because in its absence she would have to bear injustice and the dominance of her husband and in-laws. Then my father died and it was my mother’s job that kept us afloat. So, my mother also brought me up with a strong conviction of my money before my husband.

In all societies, the role of a provider has always been a man’s – a father, husband or brother and the price the woman has paid for that provision is the absence of the right to stand up for herself and be treated with respect. Therefore, if a woman had to get that right, she had to learn to provide for herself.

A job, no matter how little it pays us, brings us the freedom and the confidence to demand our right to be treated as equal human beings, the right to walk out of an abusive relationship without being a financial burden on some male relative, and the right to answer back to a man who thinks he owns us because he feeds us. This freedom is enough to make us happy and satisfied. We can let go of a few dollars but not this million-dollar freedom.

The history of working women matters

This article came at a very interesting time – at a time when I was watching many historical series and strangely, almost all dealt with history when women started working. I am watching a series on PBS called Mercy Street, which has the backdrop of the American Civil War. At a time when African Americans were being freed of slavery, women were becoming nurses because there were too many wounded soldiers to be taken care of.

Then there is another series – Downton Abbey, with the backdrop of the First World War when women started working because all the men had gone to the war and how they regretted being put back into their homes once the men returned.

If you take India’s history as well – one of the first generations of female workers began working after partition since they were left without family or without men and had to run the family. None of these changes were happy changes – work was thrust on women but the role of a breadwinner certainly brought in a voice.

That voice was more important than any amount of money. As one character in Downton Abbey says to a lady who is running a magazine and contemplating moving to London alone – the problem with staying on your own is – you may just start loving it too much. Once women got the chance to make their own decisions – it was too hard to give it up, no matter what the odds were.

Even today, women expect little from life

Women even in today’s emancipated times don’t have it easy. We don’t realise it because the struggle is so much a part of our life – whether it is the right to education, the freedom to travel, the right to stay alone, the freedom to decide whether we want to get married or not, the choice of partner, the right to work, the choice of vocation, the freedom to wear clothes we like, the right not to be ogled at – everything is a challenge.

Therefore, what men take for granted, we consider ourselves lucky to have those. We see teenage girls in rural areas being married and thank God for parents who educated us; we see women being targets of domestic violence and thank ourselves for being financially independent.

Yes, we thank our stars for being able to study, work, and earn, as compared to the thankless and unpaid work that taking care of home and hearth entails.

The satisfaction of contributing to society

Women are traditionally not expected to be breadwinners, which means their work is treated as secondary. At the same time, it brings an advantage with it – we do not have to stick to a job if we are not happy with it. We have the option to quit and look for the work we want to do. So, apart from our social reality, our work choices are determined by what we want to do.

Therefore, you will find a lot of women working in the NGO sector. Yes, teaching and health care have been traditionally female bastions due to their inherent nature as care givers but they also give us the satisfaction of making a change for the better. The satisfaction of using our inherent qualities for a larger purpose and being appreciated for it compensates for lower pay packages.

We want more from life than only money

The standards of success for men, as defined by society, include a large pay packet, a big car, and a beautiful eye candy of a wife. A stereotypically successful woman is someone who has a rich husband, a big house full of kids and a battery of servants. These stereotypes have been thrust upon us for centuries – so much so that we have started believing in them as well. But there is still some truth in one factor – that we do not consider ourselves successful if we only have riches, we need someone to share it with as well – that has to be family, friends or today, perhaps even a hobby.

Women do not just get an opportunity to earn money through work; we get a support system of friends and colleagues, an environment to vent our feelings about life and home, a place to give wings to our creativity, and one where we can feel powerful and valued. All these things make our life more fulfilling.

Lower pay for better work-life balance?

Even today, it is true that most women do not mind giving up a career to take care of ailing parents or in-laws or to bring up a child. Nor can we change the fact that only a woman gives birth to a child.

Thus, a recent Gallup survey in US found that the biggest competition to organizations is a child. For mothers, the greatest influence on their decision to stay in the workforce or leave is children.

Women’s social commitments demand flexible working hours. Work life balance for women is very important to accommodate both our social and professional commitments. We want to balance both and are not ready to give up one for the sake of the other. So, if an organization gives us work-life balance, we do overlook the pay disparity.

Emergence of the New Normal

Today, at least for middle class, urban women, the educated stay at home woman is a reality. Simply because she is not earning money, it does not mean that she is not aware of her rights or is taking any injustice from people.

So, there is an emergence of a New Normal in society where parents are educating their daughters no matter whether they earn or not – they are qualified enough to earn a living if the need arises. Parents are also becoming supportive of their daughters – they are giving them courage and confidence that they will be welcome back in their parents’ home if they choose to walk out of an abusive relationship.

There is also a class of not-so-educated female workers – in the unorganized sector who are educating their daughters to be at a better place than themselves, for whom today’s young, financially independent women are the role model.

There is also that woman who took a break from her corporate career because it did not fulfill her creative urges and who decided to tart up something of her own.

Ultimately, I believe that the paradox of the contented female worker exists because more than only money, we want happiness from life and we are determined to be happy. Slowly but steadily, we keep on our path to what we believe is right and are confident that one day we will reach there. We want a fuller and more satisfying life – we are happier with a little bit of everything rather than everything of one thing.

While men are still focused on IQ, women have always known the value of the Emotional Quotient (EQ) – that could indeed explain why women live longer too!

Top image via Pexels

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I have been a corporate for 13 years working in industries like Banking, IT, insurance.

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  1. CP

    Lower Paid, But Happy! – I don’t think so -most of us are not happy about this – we also talk this out in our network groups, spouse and families – but often the less pay is not something that start from day one – it is a cumulative effect on women’s career as a result of marriage, maternity and mobility – most of the women exit from the career in 10-15 years of time – the ones who stay accept the lower salary as by then they have already transitioned into other career from the one they have started and relevant experience is not as much as a male counterpart… women are naturally less of a negotiator and that has an effect on their pay check too, we generally fight more on the price of vegetables etc as compared to the amount of negotiation we need to do with our employer… most peers I talk with tell me that they have not negotiated in their first job and hence started with less salary which continued throughout

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