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In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama had this to say about the U.S. gender pay gap.
You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.
Women deserve equal pay for equal work.
You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.
Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs, but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages.
Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and this year marked a slight shift in the celebrations. While humanity hasn’t completely abandoned “When is International Men’s Day?” Day, this year included significant celebrations of Pay Gap Sea-Lioning Day.
A day dedicated to women’s equality wouldn’t be complete without discussing the pay gap, and, as usual, this brings the apologists out of the woodwork. We don’t need to do anything about the pay gap, they imply, because it isn’t discrimination. There is no shortage of men on social media ready to tell you that “leading feminists” say Obama’s 77-cent figure specifically is a lie.
Which feminists? In particular, self-proclaimed “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers has dubbed the gap a “myth”, a claim that, being short, is perfect for the Twitter debate club and drive-by commenters to haul out whenever people address pay disparity.
Even the head of a skeptics organization has claimed in the past that the pay gap isn’t real.
Even private-sector sex discrimination is more relic than reality. The so-called pay gap, the “73 cents for every dollar a man makes,” one hears recited like a mantra by feminists and politicians, doesn’t exist. When true cohorts are compared — men and women with equal education, seniority, duties and hours — the pay gap shrinks to a couple of pennies.
But does this “pay gap myth”, which Sommers continues to recycle in widely read publications, hold up under scrutiny? Is it true that the reason women are paid less is because they choose to go into different fields and work different hours than men do? And if choice does play a significant role, should we stop talking about the pay gap?
Breaking Down the Pay Gap
Let’s start by noting that at least one person who studies the factors that account for pay gaps says that choice of careers, while a factor in unequal pay, is not the silver-bullet solution that pay–gap critics suggest. It isn’t even the biggest factor driving the difference between men’s and women’s wages.
But a majority of the pay gap between men and women actually comes from differences within occupations, not between them — and widens in the highest-paying ones like business, law and medicine, according to data from Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University labor economist and a leading scholar on women and the economy.
Rearranging women into higher-paying occupations would erase just 15 percent of the pay gap for all workers and between 30 and 35 percent for college graduates, she found. The rest has to do with something happening inside the workplace.
That something is actually two things. The first is the trend toward disproportionately rewarding employees who work long hours. Employers have done this much more over the last couple of decades, both through increasing overtime and by rewarding this “loyalty” among salaried employees with bigger pay hikes. The change has come about as benefits, particularly health care, have become a larger part of labor costs. Employers feel it is cheaper to pay a few employees to work more hours, even with overtime, than to hire a new employee with health care benefits.
The second factor is that not all employers offer flexible schedules. Goldin uses business, law, and surgery as examples of industries that require long, on-site hours and on-call availability the remainder of the time. They are also among the industries with the highest disparities between men and women in pay for each hour worked.
So that seems fair, right? Men are being paid more for the premium of giving up some of their work-life balance. They’re taking one for the team and being rewarded accordingly. Right? Before you answer, there are two other things you need to know.
Gender Differences in Unpaid Labor
First, even though women work fewer paid hours than men, they work the same number of hours overall. The reason women more frequently require constrained work weeks and more flexibility in their schedules is that they do the bulk of the unpaid work that makes our society run, particularly caregiving, both for children and for other adults.
In the U.S., turning this unpaid labor into paid labor is generally considered unthinkable. However, that’s not the case everywhere, which gives us a chance to look at how varying the proportions of unpaid labor affects wage gaps. Parts of Europe subsidize parental childcare, particularly in infancy. They pay parents to stay home with young children.
At first glance, European results would seem to suggest a preference for childcare over other types of work in women. These subsidies sometimes worsen wage disparity by increasing the amount of time women spend outside the labor market (pdf). In Sweden, however, some of that subsidy can only be received as paternal leave. This helps men overcome the stigma of taking time off work, childcare labor is more evenly shared, and the contribution of childcare to pay inequities is eliminated.
Where the domestic labor of childcare is treated equitably, it doesn’t contribute to a gender pay gap in the workforce. When Sommers and those who follow her lead point to childcare choices as proof there are no structural inequalities behind the pay gap, they ignore both policy and social pressures that mean childcare duties fall mostly to women. The choice is forced.
Paying for Productivity
It’s also worth taking a hard look at the cost argument for rewarding employees who eschew work-life balance. While overtime and inflexible workplaces can look like a deal in theory, they’re bad for business in reality.
Let’s look at the math. If you’re an employer who offers decent benefits, those benefits typically cost roughly the same as your direct payment for labor. In other words, a $20 hourly pay rate actually costs you $40 an hour. But benefit costs don’t grow much with additional time worked. Hours of time-and-a-half overtime at $30 look like a steal when you compare them to hiring another employee at $40 for each regular-time hour.
The problem with this calculation is that you don’t get an hour’s worth of work out of most employees on overtime. Henry Ford established 40-hour work week for his employees in 1914, after years of tracking their productivity under various work conditions convinced him that more than an eight-hour shift was unproductive. (He also doubled their pay, but that’s a different argument.) His success persuaded others to follow suit, and over the last few decades, a rather remarkable amount of empirical backing has been amassed supporting the cost-effectiveness of short work days and work weeks.
To put it briefly, after eight hours, a manual laborer is working at only about 50% of capacity. There are exceptions, but they’re not sustainable. The turnover point for “thinky” occupations is closer to six hours. Contrary to popular belief, brains, not muscles, are the body’s resource hogs, and requiring concentration increases that load. This means that paying for an hour of overtime at $30 is paying for half an hour’s worth of regular work at that rate. Compare this to a half hour at $20 (pay plus benefits) during a regular shift.
This is already a bad deal. It’s a worse deal if you’re paying your male workers putting in overtime a higher rate than you’re paying the women who don’t.
If long hours happen often enough in your business to treat working them as critical, it’s time to hire more employees. It will be better for you and better for them, because that calculation doesn’t include the cost of the higher accident rates that accompany long work weeks. Allowing flexible schedules also increases productivity and reduces absenteeism. Paying a premium for people willing to work long, inflexible hours doesn’t pan out. Although the bias involved isn’t directly a gender bias, it contributes to the wage gap without a good business justification.
Forcing Choice and Limiting Rewards
Attributing pay disparity to choice is equally unjustifiable on the other end of the pay scale. Framing wage difference as due to choice erases the mass of women, particularly non-white women, who make up two-thirds of minimum wage and tipped workers. Early poverty, poor educational opportunities, limited public transportation, and racism all limit the industries open to these women.
When these women do choose an industry among their limited options, their choice of jobs is still more limited than that of men in the same situation. A long history of harassment and discrimination limits their access to the skilled blue-collar jobs that pay better. This is particularly true in the military, which is still one of the better paths out of poverty for those with little education. Problems of limited choice are compounded by the decades-long contraction of the manufacturing sector. As the overall number of people entering these professions has declined, there have been fewer opportunities to redress historical gender imbalances in these higher-paying, often unionized jobs.
Nor does a narrative based solely in choice accurately represent the situation faced by middle-class women. It ignores that the history of women entering the office is a history of men being replaced by women who could be paid less. It ignores the gendered narratives used to justify lower pay for women (pdf), such as the idea that women were still supported by their parents (later by their husbands) or that they were only working to fill time until they married.
The narrative of choice also ignores that the creation of a ghetto of underpaid educated women’s work was possible because even through most of the Twentieth Century women were explicitly barred from higher-paying industries and, often, from the education required to enter them. Women didn’t choose lower paying work. They chose to work at the only pay available to them.
While the days when women’s jobs and men’s jobs were listed separately are over, substantial barriers to women doing “men’s work” remain. When women do choose to pursue careers that are not stereotypically gendered female, and thus, pay somewhat better, they face a raft of inequities.
- They face teachers who facilitate the participation of boys over girls.
- They face parents who underestimate their abilities (pdf).
- They face peers who tell them, based on gender, that they shouldn’t pursue their chosen careers.
- They face sexual harassment and assault in educational settings from their peers and advisers.
- They face greater difficulties finding willing mentors.
- They face recommendations that downplay their individual achievement.
- They face hiring bias due to both implicit and explicit stereotypes.
- They face gender-based segregation into jobs within industries (pdf).
- They face lower starting rates of pay.
- They face ongoing systemic pay discrimination.
- They face penalties for asking for more money.
- They face greater difficulties in securing workable schedules and greater penalties for asking.
- They face hostile working environments, including sexual harassment.
- They face difficulties having their ideas heard and credited.
- They face having their work credited to their male colleagues.
- They face inequitable appraisals of the same work.
- They face penalties for showing character traits associated with leadership.
- They face less-effective mentorship and less return for professional development.
- They face fewer opportunities to shine in high-profile roles.
- They face the persistence of mostly male networks in a world where “who you know” remains incredibly important to advancement.
- They face lower availability of funding for research and entrepreneurial ventures (pdf).
- They face lower likelihoods of being published and reviewed.
- They face lower likelihoods of being nominated for awards.
Men either don’t experience the same barriers or experience them at lower rates.
All of these factors combine to make the question of choice moot. When a decision to leave a hostile educational or work environment results in lower pay, it isn’t a lie to say that lower pay is attributable to a personal choice. Choice or no choice, that lower pay is still attributable to the bias and discrimination that drove the decision. A decision to stop fighting to be heard in meetings or stop applying for positions that continually go to men is not a choice to take lower pay for equal work.
Fighting discrimination is work, work that men in the same programs and positions don’t face. Choosing to stop fighting is, at best, a choice to take lower pay for lesser work. Often, given the resistance and retaliation that happen when women bring up discrimination, it is choosing less pay for the ability to work at all.
Claiming the gender pay gap to be a myth by citing women’s choices requires an impressive shallowness of thought when we have so much evidence about the factors that drive those choices. It is an act of profound incuriosity, even intellectual dishonesty, to make such a broad pronouncement without ever addressing the historical and modern contexts of these decisions.
It’s not as though the above is any sort of groundbreaking analysis. The June 2013 report of the National Equal Pay Task Force (pdf) notes “labor market discrimination can affect women’s economic status indirectly by reducing their incentives to invest in themselves and to acquire particular job qualifications.” Several of the considerations above make an appearance in discussing why female undergrads decline to study computer sciences or why female engineers leave the field.
Christina Hoff Sommers and others who repeat the “pay gap myth” argument, if they do even the basic diligence of following the work in the field on which she’s paid to comment, have every reason to know that the “myth” narrative is deeply, embarrassingly flawed.
Author’s note: Nearly all of the factors contributing to a gender-based pay gap also contribute to race-based pay gaps. However, the narratives used to dismiss race-based pay gaps are different, centering around “culture” and innate abilities, when the issue is discussed at all.
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