Not long ago I added a little motto to the front page of this website: We tackle controversy with civility. Here’s my attempt at applying that approach to the controversial topic of the the gender pay gap.
Let’s start with some myth-busting. Not long ago, Buzzfeed produced a video that is a perfect example of what the wage gap isn’t.
The whole point of this video is that you’ve got two workers whose only apparent difference is their gender. Same approximate age, same race, same education (we’re guessing here) and, as the woman says, the very same job. And yet she gets paid 78% of what he makes. This is a myth, and it’s irresponsible even by the standards of Buzzfeed given that (as PolitiFact noted) “BuzzFeed actually looked at some sources that got it right, but then produced a misleading video.”
This sensationalist approach is sadly common. Comedian Sarah Silverman grabbed headlines herself recently for her own contribution to the myth. She relayed a story of when she and a male comedian were paid $10 and $60, respectively, for the same work in a PSA about the wage gap. Except that she left out the part where her gig had been unbook and his gig had been booked in advance. When the man she had called out as sexist (by name) spoke out publicly about that, she released an exclusive statement to Salon, saying that “My regret is that I mentioned Al by name- it should have been a nameless, faceless anecdote” and conceding that “This is also HARDLY an example of the wage gap.”
Even worse: it’s not just Buzzfeed videos and stand up comics who perpetuate the mythical 22% wage gap for men and women doing the same work. When I researched this piece I was stunned to learn that the website of the United States Department of Labor does the same:
MYTH: Saying women only earn 77 cents on the dollar is a huge exaggeration – the “real” pay gap is much smaller than that (if it even exists).
REALITY: The size of the pay gap depends on how you measure it. The most common estimate is based on differences in annual earnings (currently about 23 cents difference per dollar). Another approach uses weekly earnings data (closer to an 18- or 19-cent difference). Analyzing the weekly figures can be more precise in certain ways, like accounting for work hours that vary over the course of the year, and less accurate in others, like certain forms of compensation that don’t get paid as weekly wages. No matter which number you start with, the differences in pay for women and men really add up. According to one analysis by the Department of Labor’s Chief Economist, a typical 25-year-old woman working full time would have already earned $5,000 less over the course of her working career than a typical 25-year old man.
Once again: this is giving a misleading impression that if you have men and women with the same backgrounds doing the same work, the man will get paid more. That’s simply untrue. When you control for these factors the wage gap shrinks dramatically or even disappears. According to the HuffPo of all places (based on a study prepared by the American Association of University Women): “Women are close to achieving the goal of equal pay for equal work. They may be there already.”
This is where most conservative responses to the wage gap question stop, but I want to keep going because there is more to talk about. In particular, two issues remain.
The first issue has to do with why it is that more men apparently have the education, training, and background necessary to compete for higher-paying jobs. The reason is complex, and it probably involves personal choice correlated with gender (e.g. more women may prefer jobs that trade compensation for flexibility) and also with making the kinds of training necessary for some high-paying jobs uncomfortable environments for women (anyone who is familiar with the computer science field will know that is a factor). To the extent that personal choice is the deciding factor, there is no inequality. To the extent that it’s hostile environments, then clearly we’re just relocating sexism from hiring managers to colleagues and students in male-dominated fields. Let’s set this issue aside for a bit, we’ll come back to it later.
The second has to do with studies that appear to show sexism directly in hiring decisions. One of these studies was conducted by Corinne Moss-Racusin, a social psychologist at Skidmore College. The study was very simple: create a resume and send it off (in this case to scientists) where one version has the name “John” and the other has the name “Jennifer.” See if the responses differ. As this Stanford article summarizes, they do.1
Superficially, this looks like clear evidence of sexism, but that might be too hasty. First, it’s odd that the biased reactions come from female scientists as well as from male scientists. Of course it’s not impossible to hypothesize that women in male-dominated fields view themselves as exceptional and still have a generally sexist view of women in general, but this explanation is at least a little odd. Is there an alternative explanation? There is.
You can explain this finding without recourse to sexism simply by assuming (1) that hiring managers only care about bang for the buck and (2) that men tend to work more hours. Well, as it turns out, #2 isn’t an assumption. It’s a fact, as sources like this one indicate. Well, if the folks doing the hiring want the most bang for the buck and if men tend to work more hours and if the position is salaried, then clearly they will have a preference for men, even if they think women are just as competent hour-for-hour.
If true, this means that the gender discrimination is not operating at the level of individual prejudice. It is not the case that people making hiring decisions dislike women or devalue their contributions. But it also doesn’t mean that our work here is done. What remains is still the question: why do men work more hours?
And this brings us back to the point I said we’re return to: the question of personal preference vs. environmental factors. Or, to use the more conventional terms, nature vs. nurture. I can’t emphasize enough: this is the reason the wage gap is so controversial. Because at its heart, buried beneath all the layers of analysis we’ve done so far to get here, we stumble on one of the most controversial questions of our age: are gender differences tied to innate human nature or are they merely social constructs? Your view on that question will, for the most part, cement whether you see the gender gap as essentially a minor issue where we just need to eradicate remaining vestiges of chauvinism and/or clean out a few specific problem industries or whether you see the wage gap as a society-wide, catastrophic consequence of a thriving patriarchy. Because if you think women tend to work fewer hours because they elect to value other things (such as child-rearing) more relative to men, than the wage gap is mostly a reflection of individual preference. But if you think women tend to work fewer hours because they are being socialized not to fully develop their talents and view their contributions to society as equal to those of men, then the wage gap (all 22% of it, not just the small amount that remains when you control for job type, etc.) is a form of widespread oppression. Women contribute fewer hours, in that view, because they are unfairly burdened with more of the work outside of their day job and because they are subtly manipulated by society from an early age to see themselves as objects to be desired for superficial characteristics rather than as subjects to be actively engaged in shaping their own destinies and developing and expressing their innate capabilities.
As long as this conflict remains, the issue is not going to go away. Even if the 22% number is a myth, it’s a myth that expresses a critique of modern society that has far more validity than Silverman’s mangled story or the Department of Labor’s mangled statistics.
Now, as I get ready to wrap this post up, here are my own thoughts about this conflict. For the most part with the view of the gender essentialists, especially after reading Steven Pinker’s influential book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker argues very persuasively and with reams of evidence that human nature is real and that it includes meaningful sex differences. What this means is that, if women tend towards actually liking being primary caregivers more than men, working towards equal pay across society (not equal pay for equal work, but equal pay AND equal work) is not actually going to make women happier. It’s going to make them less happy, as a group.
Imagine a scenario where Bob really likes to hike and so he takes a full-time job with lots of flexibility and expectations of a 40-hour work-week. His wages are lower in return for having a lot more time out of the office. Jim likes to buy stuff, however, and so he takes a full-time job where the expectation is 80-hours a week. He gives up hiking time to earn even more money. There’s an obvious wage gap here. But if you come in and solve it by insisting that Bob and Jim both spend equal hours in the office and equal hours hiking, you’re making them both less happy. You took away Bob’s hiking time, which he values more, and gave him a higher salary, which he was already willing to give up for the hiking time. You took away Jim’s money, which he values more, and gave him hiking time which he had already chosen to give up for the money. If women willingly choose careers that allow more flexibility in exchange for lower pay, then trying to coral them into higher-pay, lower-flexibility jobs is a terrible solution. If women want to be part-time nurse practitioners and you try to engineer them in to being full-time software engineers, no one is happy.
This isn’t purely hypothetical, by the way. As women have moved towards parity in the workplace over the last few decades, their level of happiness has not increased. It has decreased:
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well‐being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.
Since I largely believe innate human differences account for the systematic decisions of large numbers of women to spend less of their time in formal work, I don’t accept the view that what we’re witnessing is widespread patriarchy. I think what we’re witnessing, by and large, is people doing what they want to do.2But there are some really important corollaries and caveats.
First, although I think it’s too obvious to require saying I’m going to say it anyway: the fact that lots of women decide of their own volition to emphasize something other than professional achievement (relative to men) does not in any way indicate that all women should do the same. The classical liberal in me is deeply committed to individualism, and that means that I have a lot of sensitivity for the outliers. There should be absolutely no coercion–formal or informal–designed to force men or women to pick certain careers based on their gender.
As a follow-up to that, if we’re going to have a situation where the women who choose to (for example) go into computer science are always going to be in a minority then we ought to have institutions and systems in place that ensure they get equal access to training and other opportunities. Not to be too personal, but my wife is getting a PhD in computer science. You can’t ask for a more male-dominant sector than that. She regularly attends women-centric conferences and groups and I am very glad that they exist to provide her and other women with something closer to equal opportunity in an environment that can be really hostile. There is a lot of room for conservatives and liberals to agree on common sense, incremental improvements for women.
I also think that our work culture is intrinsically anti-family, and that this is a problem for men as well as for women. As a recent article at Harvard Business Review pointed out:
We often think of problems with [work] expectations as women’s problems. But men too may struggle with them: my research at a top strategy consulting firm, first published in Organization Science, revealed that many men experienced these expectations as difficult to fulfill or even distasteful. To be sure, some men seemed to happily comply with the firm’s expectations, working long hours and traveling constantly, but a majority were dissatisfied. They complained to me of children crying when they missed their soccer games, of poor health and substance addictions caused by how they worked, and of a general sense of feeling “overworked and underfamilied.”
I would dearly love to see some sanity, some balance, and some honesty start to replace a culture of dishonesty where, as the headline of that article points out, “Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks.” Sure, some really do work that much. (I have a few times.) But it’s the perception that more hours = better employee that leads some men and women to fake it while other men and women really do work that many hours and in both cases productivity and health suffer.
On the wider picture, however, I fear the conflict is irresoluble. If gender is innate, then it is quite probable that a number of systematic gender differences will be a permanent feature of human society. If gender is primarily a social invention, then the agenda is clear: equality means women and men earning the same in the workforce because they are largely doing the same things and they are equally happy about it. You have to erase any correlation between gender and work-preferences. On any significant metric, therefore, androgyny is the goal by definition. Any gender differences that remain will be inconsequential and superficial.
At that point you’re trying to socially engineer people’s conception of gender and definition of happiness in order to fit your pre-conceived notions of equality. And I have to ask: why? Something seems backwards when you first tell people how to live and then have to re-engineer them to like it that way.