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Does closing the gender pay gap require vulnerability?

I feel like I am a gender equality hypocrite. I have the right intentions, I say the right things and I think I understand, but that comprehension is partial. I have an intellectual appreciation of the injustice represented in the recently published Australian gender pay gap data by WGEA, but I don’t really feel it in my gut. Why would I? Sure, I have a wife, a sister and a teenage daughter who works harder than anyone her age I’ve ever met and according to the data, will receive less financial reward than her male counterparts. I get that this sucks. Yet, do I really feel it? How can I?

I am going to take a big risk in this article. I’m going to talk about gender inequality by making reference to neurodiversity, sexual preference, gender fluidity and being brown. Other than that last one, I don’t really know a damn thing about any of them. However, before you blast me for writing about something from a position of complete ignorance, that is going to be exactly my point.

Just as the gender pay gap data was being published, I attended an excellent event with my daughter where we heard from a criminology expert. My daughter is studying psychology at high school and is really interested in macabre topics that I would rather not think about. We heard all about horrific violent crimes against women (it was not an event aimed at kids so my 16-year-old and I made an informed decision to attend) and there was a very interesting discussion about how young women can minimise risk, the challenges that online and increasingly virtual worlds will pose for women, and also what men can do to help women be and feel safer. I walked away from the session realising I am full of crap.

I like to think that I am enlightened on such topics. When walking down the street at night, I will stop or even cross the road to allow for more distance between me and a woman who might be walking on her own in the dark. That was just one of the many actions discussed in the session, and I already do it automatically. But one guy (and the session was mostly attended by women) asked why it is that women tend to be so much more interested in crime podcasts than men are. The answer stuck with me – “because it affects us more than it affects you…because when I walk back to my car this evening, I will need to scan my environment and consider my safety and you probably won’t even think about it”.

Damn right! I might understand but I don’t feel it. And this is where I had an ‘a ha’ moment. Those who really know me well are aware that I struggle with my skin colour. The majority of you have not grown up with brown skin in a predominantly white society, and back in the 70s, 80s and 90s when I was at school, Australia was even more white. In past moments of vulnerability, I have said that my skin colour is the first thing I bring into a room with me when I enter it. I don’t expect any of you to understand this. I don’t even expect other folks from racially diverse backgrounds to share my perspective (even though I know many of you do), as this is my lived experience. I have two fundamentally different accents. The accent I show to the world and the one I reserve for my family at home. My kids think it is hilarious. Growing up I was told that I should be hanging out in the library with the other Indian kids; not playing sport or participating in school musicals. Even today as an adult, more than 50% of the people I interact with completely bastardise the pronunciation of my name. I gave up correcting people before the age of 10. I know what it is to be a racial minority. You might be able to intellectually empathise, but the majority of you can’t feel it. And yet I think that I am enlightened when it comes to gender inequality. What a hypocrite.

This got me thinking even more. Over the years, I have had truly wonderful friends who are gay, and my kids have a few friends who are gender fluid. I love and accept all of them, but I don’t walk in their shoes. One of my children is neurodiverse. I love him to death, but I just can’t be in tune with how he can spend 4 weeks working on an assignment, do a great job with it, and then fail to submit it and get a zero. This is not a one-off occurrence for him, and even though I empathise and read all I can about his challenges and why remembering to and then being able to press send on an email is so difficult, I don’t feel it. Just upload the bloody assignment.

I have an image of myself that I am one of those people who understands. I’ve educated myself on neurodiversity. I understand the structural challenges in society that contribute to the gender pay gap. I hate that it exists. I like to think that I am a male champion for gender issues. And yet I am happy to badge other well-meaning members of society as “not getting it” when it comes to racial inequity.

Our corporate leaders – the majority being male – say they are committed to the elimination of the gender pay gap, and yet it still exists. I wonder if we all have to go beyond our intellectual understanding of these issues. How does one do that you ask? I can’t suddenly become gay, change gender, or jump onto the spectrum, just in the same way you can’t suddenly change skin colour. My realisation from the criminology session that I attended with my daughter is that I don’t fully understand. Comprehension is more than intellectual. It also comes from the gut. I see this as a big win for me. It will allow me to listen more - listen from a position that says that your lived experience is more important than my capacity to rationalise.

In the work I do with Vibrance, I often come across leaders who struggle to show vulnerability, where “not knowing” is a sign of weakness. Maybe we could collectively make some progress on the gender pay gap if well-meaning males stopped trying to convince ourselves that we get it. There is no shame in saying that as a male I have no lived experience with gender discrimination. I don’t judge you for not knowing what it is like to be brown, and I don’t think the women I know judge me for not knowing what it is like to be female.

I want my daughter to be able to be respected and rewarded in a way that has nothing to do with her being a woman and everything to do with her being a wonderful and capable human being. And I want to play a part in making this a reality. My big first step forward is to acknowledge that I don’t and won’t ever fully understand, and that this is ok. I don’t believe that feeling it in my gut is a prerequisite for acting. However, acknowledging that I don’t feel it in my gut, that one’s lived experience is what really matters, will hopefully make me more aware of my biases, shortcomings and ultimately increase my curiosity so that I am truly better placed to make a difference through my actions instead of my words. My hope is that corporate Australia can do the same.


Sahil Merchant

A proven entrepreneur, an innovator, and an expert in agility, growth, and new talent. Sits at the intersection of large corporates and fast moving disruptors.


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