“What Women are Worth: Money and Power Will Not Come Through Legislation but by Busting Negative Stereotypes,” by Cheryl Heller, originally ran in AIGA’s The Journal in 1992 (vol. 9, no. 4). It’s part of a series in which we invite a new generation of design critics to page through our archives and respond to an article of their choice. Check back in a week for the next installment in this conversation between past and present.

I was asked to speak at the conference in Chicago about the fact that women make less money than men. It’s an endless emotional subject colored by centuries of opinions. Following, nevertheless, is one more point of view.

I believe that money and power will not come through legislation, although that may give women the confidence to act. It will come through an understanding of how our behavior has been conditioned by stereotypes and how our expectation levels are set and the responsibility we share in setting those expectations. The time has come for this issue of men versus women to end. Too much has been said and written and too much money has been made by those to stand to profit from analyzing the gender gap. The most honest and useful belief we can hold is that the battle we have to fight is an individual battle having nothing to do with gender.

It’s undeniably true that women make less money than men, and money is the sign of equality. Women earn less money than men at every level of education. The gap is as large for college graduates as for workers who have not finished high school. Both men and women employers pay their female subordinates roughly $12,000 less than their male subordinates with similar positions. It’s a fascinating statistic. Women pay women less than they pay men. One-third of all new businesses today are started by women, and surprisingly, among the self-employed, the gap in hourly earnings is slightly larger. That means that even when women have their own companies, they pay themselves less than men pay themselves.

The facts about the wage gap are relatively uncontroversial, but there’s a lot of disagreement as to why. The first inclination is to blame employers, but if employers had the power to control wages, why wouldn’t they drive down the wages of men? They have to face the issues of supply and demand and they pay, to men and women, as little as they can while remaining competitive in the marketplace, and they respond to whoever applies the most pressure.

A second definition of discrimination is job segregation, the assumption that women are suited to some jobs more than others or the menial tasks rather than managerial. It’s called sex-role differentiation and there are a million reasons as to why it exists. The assumption that we’re not the same has existed forever. Within the original myths of almost every culture, there seems to be a preference for dichotomous thinking, which, as Simone Dabougraur wrote in 1945, “Casts men as the norm and women as the other possessing traits opposing to men.”

Not surprisingly, the fact that men have been in power has had an effect on the study of sexual differences. First of all, women had not been considered important enough to study, and the study that has been done has been directed towards discovering proof of women’s biological inferiority. Men have simply been protecting their turf. We have been considered less intelligent because of our smaller brain size and are unable to perform several tasks simultaneously because of less brain lateralization.

We’re believed to be more controlled by our hormones than are men. Edgar Burman, who was medical advisor to the late Hubert Humphrey, warned against women’s participation in public affairs because of their “raging hormones” and U.N. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick reported that some White House critics resisted her appointment because of her female “temperament.” We’re believed to be generally fixed as homemakers and breeders of children through the evolution of hunter-gatherer societies. We’re also believed to be more “social” and more suggestible, to have lower self-esteem, to excel over men at repetitive tasks, to be less analytical, less motivated towards achievement, and more auditorially oriented rather than visually. None of these things is true. What is true; however, is that we’re conditioned to behave in certain ways regarded as appropriate to our gender by our parents, our teachers, and by society.

The overwhelming evidence that’s come to light in the last decade indicates that gender differentiation is best explained as a social construction rooted in hierarchy, not in biology. It’s been proven that jobs affect behavior tremendously. Recent research found a direct link between the pace complexity, or routinization of a job and the person’s commitment, intellectual flexibility, moral perspective, and competence. In other words a person’s interest and competence turns out to be linked to exposure to new situations and opportunities to learn in advance. We actually condition ourselves as we are being conditioned to fit this hierarchy.

It’s been discovered that people do “emotion work” on themselves to create feelings that appropriate to their role in society; also, that through anticipatory socialization, men condition themselves to have masculine feelings and women to have feminine feelings. Nora Ephron wrote about this self-fulfilling prophecy: “I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself. I discovered that even now men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative, and certainly less self-centered than they are themselves, so I generally oblige them. I didn’t particularly want to be good at reversing cars and didn’t in the least mind being patronized by illiterate garage men.

But all stereotypes disintegrate when we look at individuals. The fact of the matter is that more men than women do certain things and behave in certain ways and vice versa, but in reality, the world just doesn’t split neatly down that line. What differences there are between men and women turn out to be much smaller than the differences between rich and poor or between managers of small and large companies or old and new companies. They may even be smaller than the differences between old and young people, or those with professional parents and those with working class parents. The concepts of male and female cause the sorting and skewing of perceptions by focusing on differences rather than similarities. Often these distinctions are based on very slim evidence.

It was Coleridge’s idea that a truly great mind is androgynous, one that rises above the traps of gender. We create our own opportunities. We must accept responsibility for doing that, and we must accept that we are just as responsible for not creating opportunities. For everyone it’s an individual battle. No organization and no legislation will change enough people. What will help is for each of us to work individually to prove the stereotypes wrong to ourselves and to everyone else. People who are successful have many qualities in common. They have a passion to be great that carries them through rough times and keeps them focused. They’re clear about what they want. They don’t focus on limitations. They take risks and they have courage. These are qualities shared by both genders. We have a tremendous advantage. We have learned a lot from not being the ruling class.

I read once that children always know their parents better than parents know their children. That’s because those with power are studied carefully by those they control. We still have the element of surprise. If you’re not expected to be strong or brilliant, it can work to your advantage. t seems to me that the conflict is to be treated roughly, so you must choose. At a conclusion of A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Wolf wrote, “If we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is not an arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come.”