Often, when I deliver a presentation or lecture to a corporate group about why men should support gender equality, I’m asked a predictable question by the CEOs and other top-level executives in attendance. “We agree with what you’re saying, Michael,” they begin, “but gender equality is so expensive! I’m not sure we can afford it.”
My response has two parts. First, I suggest that they look at the tremendously useful data collected by Catalyst and other organizations, which indicate that gender equality is good for a company’s bottom line: it increases a company’s profitability, enhances its reputation in the outside world, and boosts employee morale. In short, gender equality makes good business sense.
The second part of my answer involves pointing out that these executives are asking the wrong question. They shouldn’t be wondering how much gender equality would cost them; they should be wondering how much gender inequality has already cost them?
Think of the lost productivity, the absenteeism, the low morale, the job turnover—such common results of inequality impose enormous costs on companies. And when an employee perceives a workplace as unfair, he or she is far more likely to skip work, be less of a team player, and eventually leave the company altogether.
It’s not as if everyone has to be paid exactly the same in order for employees to feel a company is treating them fairly. Consider a Major League baseball team: each player is paid a different amount, but everyone plays their hardest. And despite these inequities, they play as a team; they’d lose every game if they just played like individuals.
Why? Because the players perceive that the differences in their levels of compensation are based on measurable differences in ability and contribution. They can see these differences for themselves and they agree that different skills should be rewarded differently. The problem comes when we don’t understand the basis for compensation disparities, or when we perceive those disparities to be arbitrary—that’s when workers become unhappy. And who wants unhappy workers? Trust me: they are far more expensive than happy workers.
The celebrated psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal’s experiments with capuchin monkeys reveals this truism in the starkest of terms. In one experiment, the Emory University psychologist “paid” the same wages to two monkeys who performed the same job—perfect wage equality. When the monkeys handed the experimenter a stone, they were paid with a stick of cucumber. They like cucumbers, so this doesn’t feel like a punishment—yet.
But when the researcher arbitrarily begins to pay one monkey with the same cucumber stick and gives another a grape (they far prefer grapes; now the cucumber stick is perceived as a punishment!) . . . Well, watch what happens:
CEOs could learn a thing or two from de Waal’s experiment. In social science, we call it “relative deprivation”—the perception that others are getting more than you feel entitled to. The monkeys were both happy when they had perfect wage equality. Inequality introduces differences, and when the criteria on which those differences are based seem arbitrary, capricious, or inexplicable, the costs to the employer are enormous.
Compared to having your “rewards” thrown back at you, maintaining equality in the first place seems like a real bargain!