Managers can get away with paying women less than men, for essentially the same work. That’s according to Australian entrepreneur Evan Thornley.
Thing is, Thornley is just saying what everyone knows. He’s just saying it in a slightly (okay, brazenly) illegal way.
At a startup conference in Sydney, the co-founder of online advertising startup LookSmart said he just loves to hire women. But think twice before you start handing out the feminist props. According to a story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, his reasoning goes like this: “Call me opportunistic; I thought I could get better people with less competition because we were willing to understand the skills and capabilities that many of these women had.” Thornley explained that by hiring women, he can get better-qualified employees who take on more responsibility.
Here’s the kicker that’s got him into hot water: “And [women were] still often relatively cheap compared to what we would’ve had to pay someone less good of a different gender,” said Thornley. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that “different gender,” in this context, means guys.
In case anyone in the audience still didn’t get the point, Thornley illustrated it with a slide that included a photo of two businesswomen high-fiving. The picture was titled, “Women: Like Men, Only Cheaper.” The irony is that the photo also included the caption, “If you don’t like it, help us right it.”
Naturally, after a stream of criticism, including one article titled, “Well, s—, that was a dumb thing to do at a startup conference,” Thornley is backpedaling. He would never, ever pay women less than men for doing the same job, he says. That would be discriminatory, of course, and for an employer doing it intentionally and systematically, illegal.
Despite all the hoopla, we all knew this already. It’s just that no one was boneheaded enough to say it so blatantly and so publicly. When people talk about this, they generally code it. In the earlier part of Thornley’s comments–the part that no one seems to have upset exactly no one–he says he can hire women with “less competition.” You don’t have to be a genius to understand that “less competition” means these women aren’t getting competing job offers, and that therefore they’ve got way less leverage to negotiate any lowball offer Thornley throws their way. If there’s “less competition” for their talents, Thornley can pay them less.
Whenever someone talks about an undervalued investment, or one for which there is no competition, we understand immediately what they’re talking about: It’s cheap. For some reason, when the same language is applied to people, we pretend not to understand the implications. We need someone to actually come out and say, “I pay them less”–as Thornley pretty much did–before we get upset.
Many investors who invest in women-owned companies, or companies run by people of color, or people who are economically disadvantaged, use the same language, and make similar references to a lack of competition and undervalued talent. They say they’ve discovered a market niche where they can make investments with less competition. You’re crazy to think that doesn’t mean they get better investment terms. And we don’t pillory them. We laud them for putting money into businesses that more traditional investors are unwilling to back.
Personally, I’d like to thank Thornley for his ridiculous gaffe. After all, there’s plenty of research showing that women get paid less than men, and for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance. But these findings often meet with a response that is breathtaking in its creativity, as skeptics look for ways to show that women are somehow mysteriously less qualified, less committed, or harder to manage than men. Thanks to Thornley, we’ve been presented with a striking verification that, at least at one company run by one CEO, women are paid less simply because they’re women. Should we really believe Thornley is the only one?
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