I’m a woman who does not believe the myth of the gender pay gap. Why? Because I work in a female-dominated sector of the economy where every male I know who works in the same profession gets paid less than I do. Furthermore, I work FOR another sector of the economy that is traditionally male-dominated, so I have observed the wage disparity between the men and the women in that profession and can easily see the underlying reasons for it.
Critics of markets claim that American women only make a percentage of what men make and insist that this is evidence that markets discriminate against woman. Back in the 1970s, women (as an aggregate) made about 65% of what men (as an aggregate) made. Now the figure is said to be about 80%, but recent studies show “the gap” is much narrower than that.
How does that work? Well, I alluded to it. The 80% number is comparing aggregate figures — all male workers compared to all female workers. The 80% number does not compare men and women with the exact same skills, experience and employment preferences. Instead, it refers to the ratio of female to male wages among full-time workers, across all kinds of jobs and regardless of skills and preferences of the workers. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison of men and women doing the same work.
So the claim that women get paid 80% of what men do for the same work is not just a myth … it’s really a lie.
The second myth involved here is that the missing 20% represents discrimination by employers. It’s not supported by the facts, which are discoverable through an apples-to-apples comparison of men and women in the workforce.
That’s what economic studies of “the gap” attempt to do – hold everything else constant and compare employees who are as similar as possible and who are in very similar jobs, except for gender. If such studies cannot explain a gap by skills and experience, then economists treat that as due to discrimination, pending further studies. The consensus of those studies has been that the clear majority of “the gap” is explained by skills, experience and job preferences.
I said “clear majority” of the gender wage gap is explained by factors other than discrimination. That doesn’t mean ALL of it is explained by other factors. There’s still about 3-5% of the 20% gap that cannot presently be accounted for by economic differences, so might possibly be due to discrimination.
Yeah, that was some precise language, because myths live in imprecision.
What this means is that discrimination might exist in labor markets. Economic studies show that most of the 80% figure is mythical and can be explained by factors other than discrimination, but a portion of the gap is not explained by economic factors, so could be attributable to discrimination … at this time, using existing studies.
But what about other forms of sexism? If employers mostly don’t discriminate based on gender by paying equally qualified men and women differently, isn’t it possible that other forms of discrimination are affecting pay differentials by gender? Maybe the differences in men’s and women’s skills and knowledge are due to sexism before they reach other labor market … sexism in education and socialization. Perhaps girls are told from a very young age that we’re not good at math and science, which discourage girls from majoring in professions that result in earning higher salaries and this contributes to the 80% figure.
Yes, that’s entirely possible, but why do we seek to punish employers for sexism engendered by parents and schools? If sexism pushes women into lower paying fields, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily being paid less than men for the same work at the same experience level in that field. What’s causing their lower wages is sexism in places other than the markets.
Defenders of markets can legitimately argue that markets usually don’t discriminate by gender, but that sexism exists elsewhere and might indirectly affect economic outcomes by gender.
Feminists will often balk at “gap” explanations that involve the different “preferences” that men and women have. It is true that women are more likely to work part-time than men and that they are less likely to work overtime when they work full-time. While there are some women who do not follow these patterns, women who prefer to spend more time with family or work in less risky occupations, will make lower incomes over the course of their careers.
Feminists argue that such “preferences” really aren’t preferences because they are the result of socialization. Women, they will claim, don’t really “choose” to work less or select less risky jobs, so much as they are forced into gender roles by social patterns. Yeah, okay, but again, why are we punishing employers for patterns that are set in childhood?
There’s no reason to deny that socialization might matter. Agreeing with that claim doesn’t imply an obligation by government or employers, because the problem largely isn’t with employers or in labor markets. If we think that socialization is a problem, and that the world would be a better and more free place if women felt more empowered to enter the math and science majors and earn a better living as a result, we can work to change the culture in ways that address these concerns. The same could be said of persuading men to devote more time to child raising and other forms of household production. If we believe that, then working through voluntary processes and institutions of civil society to reduce sexism seems like a better system than trying to force change through government policies designed to punish employers as if they are the cause and not the recipients of the issues we’re trying to address.