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Tackling the Gender Wage Gap

Arguments Rage Over Its Size, Causes, and Potential Solutions

EqualPayWhile pushing for the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act, President Obama trotted out an oft-repeated statistic — that working women in the U.S. make, on average, 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

It’s a startling figure, but one in serious dispute, because it uses raw median wages from census data, and doesn’t take into account a number of differences between men and women, including the fact that women work fewer hours on average — with parental obligations being a large factor — and the fact that the careers they choose are, on average, lower-paying than male-dominated fields.

Obama’s own Department of Labor reported as much in 2010, noting that “there are observable differences in the attributes of men and women that account for most of the wage gap. Statistical analysis that includes those variables has produced results that collectively account for between 65.1% and 76.4% of the raw gender wage gap … and thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8% and 7.1%.

Even that single-digit gap, however — which economists have not been able to explain — is too much, say proponents of the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, several iterations of which have been proposed over the past decade, the most recent having passed the House but stalled in the Senate in April.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the act seeks to make wages more transparent, requiring employers to prove that wage discrepancies are tied to legitimate business qualifications and not gender, and prohibiting companies from taking retaliatory action against employees who raise concerns about gender-based wage discrimination.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act … still requires employees to meet an exceptionally high burden before an employer need even offer an affirmative defense,” argues the National Women’s Law Center, which supports the bill.

The center notes that, under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a plaintiff must identify a comparable male employee who makes more money for performing equal work, requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions. “Employers may still pay different wages to male and female employees performing equal work if the pay decision is based on merit, seniority, or quantity or quality of production.”

Still, some supporters say the bill, even if eventually passed, is just a start, and that what the employment landscape needs is nothing short of culture change when it comes to accommodating the needs of women and paying them accordingly.

Mother of All Problems

For example, UMass professors Joya Misra, Michelle Budig, and Irene Boeckmann studied gender disparities across the globe and determined that, in most countries, the variation in employment and pay between mothers and childless women is greater than that between childless men and childless women, suggesting that these differences are driven not so much by gender as by parenthood.

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist who has written considerably about wages and gender, points out how a refusal by employers to accommodate mothers’ work-life obligations accounts for a significant portion of wage disparity over time.

“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours,” she writes, adding that, ideally, companies should offer workers more options for how much to work and when to work, and not penalize them because of an unconventional schedule.

“Goldin’s emphasis on the relationship between more flexible working hours and lower wage gaps can fix the gap at the hourly level. It would allow women who put in the same hours as men — no matter when they put them in — to earn the same rate,” writes Bryce Covert in New Republic.

“Of course,” he adds, “flexibility probably wouldn’t have a big impact on the annual wage gap, which reflects the fact that women are much more likely than men to have to interrupt or completely pause their careers to care for children. But that doesn’t mean the government is powerless to reduce the annual wage gap. Initiatives like affordable child care and paid family leave can make it easier for caregivers — who, even now, are predominantly women — to pick up the kids from school or take time off for a new baby. It might also encourage more men to do the same things.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act point out a striking pay disparity in the careers men and women choose, arguing that individual choices account for a large portion of that purported 77% gap.

Christina Hoff Sommers, the iconoclastic writer on women’s issues, notes in the Daily Beast that, despite efforts to promote STEM careers to young women, most engineering, math, and computer-science fields — among the highest-paying careers — are dominated by men, while nine of the 10 least remunerative college majors — including careers in education, social services, and the arts — are dominated by women.

“All evidence suggests that, though young women have the talent for engineering and computer science, their interest tends to lie elsewhere,” she writes. “To say that these women remain helplessly in thrall to sexist stereotypes, and manipulated into life choices by forces beyond their control, is divorced from reality — and demeaning to boot. If a woman wants to be a teacher rather than a miner, or a veterinarian rather than a petroleum engineer, more power to her.”

Stemming the Tide

Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, says those trends in career choice are not irreversible, but may, in fact, result from deep-rooted, long-standing pressures young women feel to follow certain career paths.

“If we’re concerned about them, if we’re concerned about all working women, we have to talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave,” he writes. “We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.”

He’s not the first to argue that women are raised to prefer ‘nurturing’ fields and that men are encouraged to prioritize pay over job satisfaction. Kay Hymowitz, a writer with the conservative Manhattan Institute, says that discussion often breaks down along political lines.

“According to liberals, if women are becoming pediatricians instead of neurosurgeons, public-interest rather than corporate lawyers, child-care workers rather than coal miners, and are working 35 rather than 40 hours a week, as they are, it’s because of what Frank Bruni described as a culture that ‘places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles,’” she writes.

“In the conservative view,” she goes on, “it’s the natural differences between men and women which lead them to make many of the life choices they do, differences that could probably not be resolved by anything less than mandatory universal hormone injections. The two sides are not likely to reach agreement on this nature/nurture debate anytime soon.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]