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Jamie Tobias Neely: Pay gap related to happiness gap

Last week, University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers came to town. Money actually does make people happier, he told a Spokane crowd. Men in America are happier than women, he said; “No one exactly knows why.”

No one? I wondered. Has Wolfers ever talked to an average American working woman or stay-at-home mom? With last week’s flurry of discussion over equal pay for women, it should be no great mystery.

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate once again stalled a bill designed to narrow the gap between men’s and women’s salaries. Democrats, who count on the votes of women to help them win elections, made loud pronouncements, and the issue flared up on our screens like a trending cat video for a day or two. And then it twitched its tail and disappeared.

Money likely would make women happier, particularly in Washington where, according to American Association of University Women research, women made 78 percent of what men were paid in 2012 (in Idaho it was 75 percent). Yet the salary issue is only the beginning of the answer to the economist’s question.

When I look back at my long career, which began less than a decade after Joan and Peggy were hitting their fictional stride on “Mad Men,” I see it primarily in positive terms, such as challenge, perseverance and contribution.

But I began work my work life in offices that made up for a lack of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce style with a matching set of props. We typed on IBM Selectric typewriters. One supervisor had a bottle of scotch in his drawer. Co-workers chain-smoked at their desks. Men amused themselves with gender-related pranks on the women, and occasionally outright sexual harassment ensued.

Over the years, business policies changed, and the most egregious of these behaviors disappeared from many workplaces. But at various points in my career, I encountered the same issues being publicly debated this week. I worked in one job for several years, blissfully unaware that my male peers were being paid more for doing the same work. It wasn’t part of the workplace culture to talk about our salaries, so how could I have known?

At another point, I worked up my nerve to negotiate a starting salary offer, only to have the man doing the hiring react in a fit of pique. He let it be known that he was offended to be asked to negotiate with someone he felt clearly beneath him. Though he testily upped the offer later, he certainly proved the research is true: Women who negotiate their salaries aren’t likely to win any popularity contests.

Why are women unhappier than men? Perhaps it’s that we so often face these kinds of double binds. Women as conscientious about their mothering as their careers often seek part-time arrangements, for example, only to be relegated in many settings to pay scales far below those for full-time workers.

It’s more often a failure of imagination and will than outright business necessity that prevents work-life balance policies such as pro-rated salaries and benefits for part-time work, flex time and affordable childcare. Rather than buying the convention about the market setting salary rates, we could create a culture that values the contributions of women, whether or not they’re in male-dominated professions.

American women remain boxed into cultural double binds. Dress up in court, but don’t wear heels that might be seen as sexy, women attorneys are told. Be assertive, but don’t come on too strong, women managers hear. Try balancing right on the razor’s edge of female appropriateness, and see if you don’t wind up a tad cranky, Dr. Wolfers.

Clearly the culture needs to shift. President Barack Obama spoke at the Civil Rights Summit on Thursday and provided a powerful reason for enacting supportive legislation, too. Laws may not transform people’s hearts and minds, but they can “anchor change.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act, regardless which party hopes to garner the most votes for passing it, would have been a start.

Why are women in American unhappier than men?

Seems to me the answer is hiding in plain sight.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is

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