Claudia Goldin, American professor at Harvard University, has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics for decades of research on women in the labour market. What does this mean for a sociologist and a woman in a senior management position in a large company? We heard about this at the event organised by the Széchenyi István College for Advanced Studies on 24 October.
“Claudia Goldin’s Nobel Prize in Economics this year is very important to me, because she received this award as an economic historian for her analysis of the differences between men and women in the labour market over several hundred years,” said Beáta Nagy, Professor at the Department of Sociology at the Corvinus University of Budapest. Professor Beáta Nagy was invited by the Széchenyi István College for Advanced Studies (SZISZ) of the university, and she brought along as a guest the member of the Board of Directors of Generali Biztosító Zrt. responsible for personal insurance and customer relations, Erika Schaub, so that the students could learn about the experiences of a female senior manager in addition to those of a researcher.
The pay gap has many causes
“I think Goldin’s Nobel Prize sends a message: it means that research into gender differences in progress and pay is not a hobby, but a very important, serious issue. The American professor of economics has brought this topic into scientific discourse, showing the many factors that can affect women’s careers, including marriage and the advent of contraception,” said Beáta Nagy. (The latter obviously because it made having children more predictable). She stressed that labour market inequalities should always be treated as a complex issue, as was done by Goldin. There are many reasons for the gender pay gap, all of which need to be analysed.
Erika Schaub has 25 years of experience at Generali, an Italian-owned company: “Italy has a much lower proportion of female managers than Hungary, and the company has recognised the importance of this issue. They measure companies and the proportion of female managers, against the current EU target of 40 per cent female managers. Although my experience is that women are helped and supported at Generali, I don’t think we’ve come most of the way,” she said.
The gender pay gap is opening up as you move up the ladder
Experience shows that the more educated women are, the greater the pay gap is compared to men in the same position, says Beáta Nagy. One of the reasons for this is that women are always seen as potential mothers, even at the selection stage, and companies often don’t dare to entrust them with long-term, serious, moneyed projects because they can go on maternity leave at any time and stay at home with the baby for up to 3 years. In Hungary, there is a strong social message that it is best for mothers to stay at home with their children for 3 years, and according to the latest KSH (Central Statistical Office) data, the majority do so. “Women were given the task of doing the many so-called invisible tasks at home”, we were told.
Speaking about social circumstances, the professor also spoke about the government’s rhetoric focusing on the family and the role of women in it. At the same time, she called the extra childcare benefit that has been in place since 2014 very progressive: a mother can go back to work after the child is six months old, in which case she will receive her salary and full childcare benefit, “thus the policy encourages women to go back to work”. And why do we need women in important positions? Nagy says it’s not because women are better than men at certain competences, as many people say, it’s simply because we need skilled people and we have a lot of skilled women.
According to surveys and experience, another obstacle to women becoming senior managers and board members in Hungary is that although there are more women than men in education, the gap widens after the PhD: starting a family, then having children, and women often do not want to or dare to make a serious step forward in their careers, as this implies, among other things, going abroad for 2-3 years to gain experience. Women are much less likely to do this than men, and these factors can “split” the paths between the two genders early on in a career.
At the same time, Beáta Nagy emphasized that the Academy of Young Researchers, established in 2019 with the support of the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS), is extremely helpful. This can help women to overcome disadvantages, as men in their forties are already part of serious research teams, women much less so. Of course, the field of work also matters: there are “masculine” careers (such as those available through higher education in engineering) where men often do the research and women do the conference organisation and catering “because they can do it better”. Sometimes even an older professor will make an insulting remark about female researchers.
Positive discrimination is only useful for people of equal competences
Erika Schaub talked about her own fortunate experience: she had two children, she was offered a manager position, but she turned it down because of the children, and she has no regrets, “it’s great to be with my daughters”, she said. Later, she was offered a management job again, and this time she accepted. The senior manager also said that she is aware of a case where the company is looking expressly for a female manager for a serious position at Generali. She told us about her shocking experience at a training course in Italy. One of her Italian colleagues told her that her elderly, Southern Italian, very partially sighted great-grandfather had asked her: “My girl, are you so ugly that you want to study so much?”
There was also a lot of talk about the home office, which has become more and more common since Covid, and which, according to the speakers, helps mothers a lot, as it can be a solution in case of illness of the child, and also helps in the return after childbirth. Part-time work is also important. “It’s a win-win situation for the company, as it’s better to have two four-hour super-employees than one eight-hour newcomer,” Schaub said.
In addition to the expected quotas and targets, the issue of positive discrimination was also discussed. According to Beáta Nagy, there are already some universities (she cited the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands as an example) that publicly embrace positive discrimination. Both speakers agreed that this is an important tool, but only if the male and female candidates have the same competences. Another problem is that although 40% of senior managers are expected to be women, where can you find so many well-qualified, capable women? According to Beáta Nagy, Hungary is in a good position in this respect, as there are many capable, educated and smart people, and during the “cursed” socialist era there were many women leaders – after the regime change, when the two-tier banking system was established and many highly qualified and efficient financiers were needed at the same time, there were many women among them.
You have the right to talk back!
The speakers also pointed out that the gender pay gap is not just a “women’s issue”, and that it is important to raise awareness of this, and to educate management in companies. Erika Schaub reported that she is happy to see that her male colleagues also go to the kindergarten to pick up the children, and it is also nice when the company organises events where the children can be taken – she always goes to these because it is important to her.
Afterwards, students were invited to ask questions. Responding to a question, the professor said that “often the family is the main arena of repressive mechanisms”. She believes that every woman has the right to talk back if she receives an insulting or sarcastic remark from anyone, “but how dare she talk back to a male colleague or even a boss if they have never done so in their family?” – she said. Erika Schaub stressed the importance of self-confidence in this issue. Another student asked how guests think about the boundaries between work and private life, as this has become an issue since home office became a practice. Beáta Nagy reported that in a previous research she had found that at a company, at least as many people work at home at night as during the day.