The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth

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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.

Photo of one pan of a balancing scale covered with coins against a backdrop of more coins.
“Money” by Dun.can, CC BY 2.0

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 paygap 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.

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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The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth
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9 thoughts on “The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth

  1. 2

    This is a good article overall, but while I was reading it, I remembered that the author voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary. While she supported a $12 minimum wage (OK), Sanders backed a $15 minimum.

    Given that 63% of MW workers are women, this seems like a serious feminist issue. I know that there were other issues, but the fact is that you voted for a candidate that was weaker on one part of the gender pay gap than her opponent.

  2. 3

    Gosh, Gerard, if you can remember that, you’d think you could remember that the reason I supported Clinton over Sanders was that Sanders didn’t have any good prospects for accomplishing his goals and that my actual positions are to the left of both of them. Pity your memory only extends to gotchas.

  3. 4

    Stephanie #3:

    I had a feeling you’d say that.

    If you were really “to the left” of Bernie Sanders, it would be highly unusual for you to vote for Hillary Clinton. Maybe we mix in different (online) circles.

  4. 6

    Wow. I had been thinking this was a great article by a person who had really done her research and taken the time to refute popular criticisms of the gender pay gap in an intellectually honest way… but then Gerard O swooped in to show me the error of my ways!

    Thank you Gerard O for explaining why disagreeing with your choice of Democratic candidate means that this author must not actually care very much about the topic she clearly spent a good amount of time investigating and writing about. Thank goodness we have you in our corner, caring very much about feminism and justice! Please be kind enough to refer me to your much more left leaning and correct piece of writing on this topic.

  5. 7

    It’s called “pragmatism”

    No, it’s called “backing a widely-despised candidate who ran a garbage campaign”.
    silverfeather #6:
    I literally said it was a “good article”. I was wondering aloud why someone who seems to care about labour issues would back the Presidential candidate who looked (from here in Australia, at least) to be weaker on these things.

  6. 8

    Gerard O #7
    No need to explain any more (really), I am completely convinced that you are correct! I would very much like to discuss the gender pay gap now, but it seems that you have forgotten to include a link to your work on the topic. Please remedy this!

    Perhaps you could also provide me a way to find out your opinions of future democratic candidates so I can be sure that my voting habits meet your standards? You see, I would very much like to be able to discuss the gender pay gap and other feminist topics going forward – and it makes perfect sense that to do so without interruption I must be sure that you approve of my voting record.

  7. 9

    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).

    Speaking of Germany, the “preference” of women to stay at home is, besides the enormous social pressure to be the one to stay at home, in fact the gender pay gap.
    Women who become mothers are on average younger than their male partners and work in professions that pay less. Since the subsidy is paid based on the last income of the person who takes the leave, her staying at home is the rational, economical decision.
    Then the child subsidy runs out after a year and childcare is (even though highly subsidised) expensive. If you only earn 800€ after taxes, then paying 400€ for childcare makes no sense, especially if you can get a tax free 450€ job that you can do in the evenings or at the weekend.

    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.

    It also means that the women are doing proportionally more work for less pay than the men.

    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.

    My grandpa, born in ’21, wanted to be a watchmaker, but being the child of a miner in troublesome times he had no choice than to become a miner as well. But even that fucked up situation meant he had ONE opportunity more than my grandma.

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