In a recent column in the Australian Financial Review, entrepreneur Peter McConnell writes that he hopes mothers are too busy to read the paper. If they did, they might have read him boasting about how his online business has been built on the labour of underpaid mothers.
“Commtract’s achievements can largely be sheeted home to some amazing mothers who get paid far too little for their contribution because they require flexibility,” wrote McConnell.
That’s right folks. McConnell’s online marketplace for communications professionals is not succeeding because it’s a great idea, his ingenious technical platform or marketing. No, it’s because he’s identified working mothers’ Achilles heel – flexibility – and he’s exploiting it.
In fairness to McConnell, he’s only doing what businesses have been doing for centuries: screwing women because they can.
And he will most likely continue to do so because this is capitalism and he has no incentive to change it. In fact, all the incentives encourage him to continue doing exactly what he’s doing.
And at least he’s not pretending that working mothers are paid less because their responsibilities as carers make them less productive. That myth should have been put to rest by recent research by Ernst & Young showing that working mothers make the most productive employees.
Mothers may not be at the office at 7pm, but nor do we have long lunches, extended water cooler chats or spend all day working out our footy tipping strategy. As the saying ought to go: “if you want something done, ask a busy mother”.
Still, it is depressing that underpaying mothers is so much of an accepted part of doing business that it’s being unashamedly proffered as business advice. And it reveals the truth of so many start-ups. Despite being lionised for disrupting industries, devising new business models and succeeding through innovation, McConnell’s comments demonstrate that not much has changed in contemporary business since “buy low, sell high” was invented.
Women have always been paid less than men for no other reason than that they are women. And even with all the symposiums, hand wringing and even legislation to tackle gender inequality, not much has changed.
Employers like McConnell have women exactly where they want them. It’s hard for mothers to find satisfying and meaningful work that’s also flexible enough for them to care for children and, increasingly, elderly parents. Hell, it’s even hard to find unsatisfying work that is flexible.
Many mothers feel lucky to have any sort of flexible work, despite the fact that they are adequately (and in many cases over-) qualified for the job they are doing.
If they’re earning even slightly more than their childcare costs women feel like they should shut up and be grateful.
Mothers can also feel insecure because they know there are a hundred other mothers waiting to take their place. They can’t risk rocking the boat so they content themselves with the scraps. It’s the perfect recipe for a compliant and cheap workforce.
The question is what will change this?
The first thing to realise is that this isn’t something that women can fight individually. Underpaying mothers is not a consequence of women being too timid to assert themselves like men do. All the women-in-business mentoring programs, leaning in, and go-girl memes and slogans in the world aren’t going to convince employers like McConnell to pay mothers what they’re worth.
Like many workplace inequality issues, the solution to this problem starts at home. It starts with men stepping up and taking more responsibility for caring for their children and aging parents. Because if they did this, then they would fight for flexible work conditions too.
Flexibility would become a workplace issue rather than a women’s issue, and as a result it would stop being an excuse to underpay women.
If workplace flexibility starts to affect men’s pay packets en masse the way it does women’s, bosses like McConnell would need to find another path to business success, rather than underpaying mothers.
Kasey Edwards is a management consultant and the author of Guilt Trip: My Quest To Leave The Baggage Behind. www.kaseyedwards.com