Nice Women Finish Last?

Last week’s New York Times science blog included a story by Nancy Folbre entitled Do Nice Gals Finish Last? The article discussed the connection, or lack thereof, between productivity and economic success.

It noted both the wage gap between men and women that still exists in the United States and much of the rest of the world and the fact that people who possess a “Machiavellian” personality generally sit at the top of the economic success ladder. The article notes that this Machiavellian personality which prizes a “cynical opportunism” and values making money above all else increases economic success for the individual without actually increasing productivity overall. This subverts conventional thinking that productivity and money should increase in tandem.

The article also points out that men are far more likely to have this Machiavellian personality than women and asserts that this difference could account for at least part of the wage gap. The Machiavellian personality can create tunnel vision when defining success so people who have this world view are more likely to negotiate higher monetary compensation while people with a more altruistic world view may be able to see other benefits to oneself and to society and thus require less money to feel compensated for the same work. Wally Bock brought to my attention The Pay Problem, a fine article on the disconnect of CEO compensation from productivity. The disconnect has global financial implications.

On one hand, the Folbre article could be used to justify the wage gap – if people all feel fairly compensated because they have differing priorities and their compensation matches those priorities, why does it matter that men make, on average, $819 per week to a woman’s $657 in the United States? It might not matter if we all lived in vacuums.

In reality however, individual priorities are linked to how we see our place in the world. I might think that it is perfectly fine to earn $10 for every blog entry that I write. I enjoy writing , I think that my writing has a positive influence on society and $10 gives me enough to go out and buy a sandwich and a coffee when I finish my piece! If I find out however that my colleague down the hall is earning $100 for every blog article he writes, I will be resentful that I am only receiving $10. I might even conclude that this means that the writer down the hall is better than me and that I have less to offer to the world.

Bringing this back to the article, the problem with people with Machiavellian personalities might not only be that they receive a disproportionate amount of money while not contributing significantly to the good of society. They might also be problematic because they skew everybody’s perspectives as to what represents fair compensation and can therefore lead people to feel less valuable.

As a manager this can become tricky. While we have ample evidence to prove that employees are most satisfied when they feel that their monetary and non-monetary compensation for a job matches their values and priorities, managers cannot lose sight of the fact that employees will ultimately compare themselves to each other particularly when it comes to monetary compensation. Managers then must balance the desires of their employees with the priorities of the company. They must also recognize that there is not necessarily a concrete link between productivity and compensation and the fact that employees believe they deserve higher compensation does not necessarily mean that they adds more to the organization.

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