Subtler Forms of Sexism
The #MeToo movement has generated an overdue conversation about sexual harassment, hostile workplaces, and the difficulty many men and women seem to have in communicating with each other both in and out of the office.
That conversation is valuable, but we also need to recognize that some of the most pernicious ways women are getting screwed aren’t sexual.
A good friend of mine recently emailed me about an incredibly frustrating experience when she applied for a Lowe’s credit card. She and her husband are both retired. They have excellent credit–scores in the 800s. (For those of you unfamiliar with credit agency scoring, that is really good.)
When she applied for a Lowe’s credit card, however, she tells me she was denied “on the spot.” When her husband then applied for the same credit card, he was approved on the spot.
She and her husband file joint tax returns, and own most of their assets–including a home and a vacation home– jointly. When she wrote a letter to the bank that issues Lowe’s credit card, asking for specific reasons for the denial, she was told that the reason was her lack of debt (she has none at all–unlike most Americans, she and her husband have paid everything off).
That explanation raises two obvious questions: why on earth should a lack of debt be disqualifying? and if for some bizarre reason it is, why didn’t it disqualify her husband, who is equally “debt-less”?
My friend and her husband have similar work and income histories; as retirees, they receive virtually identical social security and other retirement payments.(My friend has her own 401(k) and a pension, both of which she included on the application.) Why was he more creditworthy than she?
Unless there’s something weird she’s omitting, it certainly appears that the issuer of this credit card applies different standards to men and women. He is evidently more creditworthy because he’s a he.
My friend’s experience is infuriating, but not unusual. We sometimes forget that the idea of gender equity is relatively recent; when I went to law school, there were plenty of people–male and female–who found the idea of a woman with children working scandalous, and let me know it. I was an adult before women could have credit ratings separate from those of our fathers or husbands.
“You’ve come a long way, baby” makes for a great cigarette ad, but it doesn’t reflect the reality that we also have a long way to go. Cultural assumptions–the man as breadwinner, the male as serious, superior and thus entitled–die hard. For generations, business and government and social institutions incorporated those cultural assumptions; obsolete as they may be in today’s world, they persist.
Too bad we no longer have local investigative reporters. A systematic research project focusing on the degree to which women are still not treated equally by the businesses that invite our patronage would make a fascinating series.
If any of my friends from the Kelly School are reading this, I’d love to hear a business school perspective on this!