By: Matthew Levengood
Almost every women’s-rights activist has in their repertoire of arguments the supposed colossal injustice that is the wage gap. Allegedly, women make less money than men for equal work. Outrage! How is this happening in the year 2017? There’s a key issue that many people are missing when they rally against this statistic – it’s horribly out of context. What many feminists and policymakers on the left often ignore are the hard economic factors behind the wage gap. There’s a lot more to the often-touted statistic of “# to a dollar for equal work.” Simply stated, the forces behind the wage gap are neither sinister nor unjust, but rather natural consequences of the choices that free workers, male and female, have made in the past decades.
What is indeed true is that there is a gap between the average earnings of men and women in The United States. No one can factually argue against this with any kind of legitimacy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for the second quarter of 2017, men earned an average of $934 a week, while women earned an unmistakably lower $780. This is a disparity of 83.5%, clear as day. However, this statistic proves nothing other than the fact that men earn more than women on average. On the surface, it seems like a gross injustice, but look a little deeper and out comes the reality – women aren’t receiving inequivalent pay for equivalent work. As Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University and notable member of the female gender, puts it, “So, does that mean that women are receiving lower pay for equal work? That is possibly the case in certain places, but by and large, it’s not that. It’s something else.”
One of the major parts of the pay gap is that fields women choose to enter are less lucrative in the sense that they do not pay as much on average as the fields that men typically enter. This is not to say that work done by women is valued less because women are doing it, but rather that women choose for themselves lower-paying fields. For example, a few of the highest paying jobs in the United States include lawyer, physician, engineer, and general management, not in any particular order. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up just 35.7% of lawyers, 38.2% of physicians, 14.2% of all architecture and engineering occupations and 39.1% of all general management workers. According to a 2011 BLS report, three selected fields highly dominated by women include speech-language pathologist at 95.6% female, elementary and middle school teachers at 81.7%, and social workers at 81.6%. These fields, while important, simply do not generate the kind of income as fields mentioned prior. For example, the median pay for a speech-language pathologist in 2016 was $74,680 per year, compared to $118,160 per year for lawyers. Women aren’t getting paid as much because they are working for lower paying jobs, on average.
Why aren’t women working in higher paying jobs? There are a variety of factors, the most important of which we will discuss later. However, it’s wrong to just to sit back and blame “society” for keeping women out of such high-paying fields as certain STEM occupations and law. However, this same society that supposedly keeps women down had 19,032 women and 18,057 men earn a law degree in 2016, and enrolled 11.5 million women and 8.9 million men into higher education this semester. We can regard the decisions of women in the job market as the decisions of highly educated, free-thinking and empowered women, not those of hopeless victims to an omnipotent “society” that controls them. How, then, are women earning less?
Another part of the disparity lies in the average number of hours worked, by gender. According to a 2014 BLS report, fully employed men over the age of 15 worked an average of 8.4 hours per day, while fully employed women over the age of 15 worked on average 7.8 hours per day. These numbers do not say are that women are lazier, or that they do not work as hard as men, but rather that there are factors pulling them away from work and thereby limiting their income.
The primary reason for the fewer hours worked is caretaking, dubbed “the mommy tax” by economists and policy-makers. This “tax” is the essential substance of the pay gap. When women leave the workplace to take care of children or family members, they aren’t being productive for their employer, so they aren’t paid as much as men who are staying and working. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a public-policy author, says, “If you take women who don’t have caregiving obligations, they’re almost equal with men. It’s somewhere in the 95 percent range. But when women then have children or are caring for their own parents or other sick family members who need care, then they need to work differently.” The aforementioned Goldin elaborates, stating that women tend to value flexibility in the workplace, which, in the end, causes them to work fewer hours than men, who tend to, instead, value income growth. The high-paying jobs mentioned before are highly demanding in terms of time and commitment, and as such, women who have a family to take care of simply cannot dedicate their lives to their company as their male coworkers can. This explains why men and women make nearly the exact same salary at the onset of their careers, but towards the end have differing incomes. All things accounted for, this ends up being the primary reason for pay differences across a career span. Women work fewer hours so they can take care of a family. Therefore they are paid less. This isn’t the only explanation for the pay gap, no explanation that simple exists, but it is most of the 16.5 cents difference.
The real question to pose here is the roles of men and women in caretaking. We live in a 21st century, relatively egalitarian country, so it is reasonable to expect that men can take up the burden of caretaking and that women can pursue their careers after having children if the couple so chooses. There’s nothing wrong with this way of living. As citizens of a free country, we have the option to defy traditional roles in favor of whatever suits our circumstances best. However, it’s not unreasonable to say that even after the stigma around men caretaking and women working is removed, that more women than men will probably prefer to stay home. There is a reason why women have such a strong showing in fields like social work. We must respect such choices regardless.
The question of equal pay for equal work is no longer relevant. Since the passing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, it has been illegal to blatantly discriminate by gender in terms of compensating workers for their work. In nearly all cases, women receive equal pay for equal work. It’s difficult to simply tell the mothers of America to not take care of their families, and similarly, it’s not economically viable to pay certain positions more than they are worth. We must shift our focus towards solving these issues, rather than fighting a nonexistent problem. Recognizing the sovereignty of the choices of women is essential, as well as questioning traditional roles of gender in the family. We have had our freedom for a while now, it is time to embrace it. To close, I would like to present the conclusion to a 2007 Department of Labor study – “Although additional research in this area is clearly needed, this study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”
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