Feminism and the Male-Female Pay Gap

Feminists have spoken loudly and often about the difference between the amounts paid to male and female workers in the U.S. economy. There is a legitimate issue there. As this post shows, however, too many feminist statements on the issue cast women in a poor light, and remind us that feminism itself is responsible for some of the hardships women now experience in the workforce.

The Grapevine

Recently I encountered an article in The Atlantic by Adrienne Green (2017). The article began with these words: “The well-documented pay disparity between women and men becomes especially pronounced as women reach their late 20s and early 30s.” Green claimed that awareness of this disparity affected young women’s choices about employment and romantic relationships. It was an odd thing to say. Far from explaining how a pay disparity would be relevant, her piece described the marvelous support and opportunities enjoyed by four female Princeton graduates.

Green, herself, did not try to explain the supposedly “well-documented” pay disparity. Instead, she offered a link to another source. But it turned out that this other source — another Atlantic article (Wingfield, 2016) — did not focus on the male-female pay gap either. Instead, Adia Wingfield’s article was about the particular challenges facing women of color. Contrary to Green’s claim, Wingfield noted that “some groups of men—namely, men of color—actually earn less on average than white women.”

Like Green, Wingfield spoke of “the now-famous statistic that women earn about 79 cents for every dollar men make at work” — but, to explain or document that statistic, she forwarded the reader on to yet another article, this time in the Huffington Post (Pearson, 2016). And — you guessed it — Catherine Pearson likewise complains about the male-female pay gap, but does not explain why she believes that there is any such gap. Instead, she points to yet another article, this time by ThinkProgress (Covert, 2015).

In other words, none of those three female journalists — Green, Wingfield, and Pearson — seems to have known where the 79-cent figure came from. But they were pretty sure it was true, because they had heard it from so-and-so — who, it turns out, heard it from what’s-her-name.

In Pearson’s case, it is worse than that. The GIFs (i.e., brief, repeating video scenes) embedded in her article are appalling. Every one of them displays a prominent woman smirking, shouting, sneering, or otherwise behaving more like a teenager than a leader. I agree that Hillary Clinton, for example, might have been a good president. But the Clinton clip that Pearson chooses to highlight portrays Clinton as having a childish attitude. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it in a Republican election ad.

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I mention these several articles for two reasons. First, the remainder of this article will discuss the treatment given by Pearson, and by the sources she cites, to the male-female pay gap. The Huffington Post does often provide material of decent quality. Pearson’s article is not at that level. I wanted the reader to understand that I chose to critique her article because these and no doubt other feminists seem to consider it a powerful statement on the pay gap issue.

And that is remarkable, because this sort of “journalism” does such a disservice to the quality of debate in this country. Green, Wingfield, and Pearson seem to think that the women who read their material, in what are supposedly news-oriented websites, are not interested in seeing facts. They want to see snide attitudes, as in the Clinton video clip; they want to hear gossip, passed along as gospel from one female writer to the next. It is as if these journalists agreed with some of the worst of the old stereotypes about women’s inability to separate fact from emotion. This is the sort of material that makes many reasonable, responsible women cringe.

The Size of the Pay Gap

Informed individuals generally seem to agree that, to varying degrees, men have been paid more than women. In that sense, Pearson is incorrect in claiming that “pay gap deniers abound.”

As examples of “pay gap deniers,” Pearson cites articles in the Wall Street Journal (Ketterer, 2015), CBS Money Watch (Tobak, 2011), and the Washington Post (Kessler, 2015). And yet, taking the last one as an illustration, Pearson does not refute Kessler. To the contrary, she essentially admits his point:

Although [Kessler] attempts to downplay the pay gap by pointing out that, really, women who don’t get married earn closer to 95 cents for every dollar a man makes, that shouldn’t make anyone feel better. It implies that for women to earn equal wages, they simply shouldn’t get hitched, and ignores the simple fact that FIVE CENTS IS STILL A GAP.

Yes, five cents is a gap. When it is a case of a comparably qualified man and woman doing the same job, most people seem to agree: there should be no gap at all. That’s why President Obama proposed, and Congress passed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (see Somander, 2016).

But now we have a problem. A pay gap of five cents is obviously very different from a gap of 21 cents. There is a 16-cent discrepancy. The discrepancy exists because two different questions are being mixed up.

One question is, how much of the male-female pay gap is due to discrimination? Again, the answer to that question appears to be 5%. Due to discrimination, on average, women are paid five percent less than equally qualified men doing the same work.

A very different question is, compared to full-time working men, how much less do full-time working women contribute to the paid work of America? As just noted, the answer to that appears to be about 16%.

The Paid Work of America

We will get to the calculation and significance of the pay gap in a moment. But first, let us be careful about what I just described as “the paid work of America.” We are using figures supplied by economists, and those figures depend on some important assumptions.

In another post, I argue that domestic (i.e., household, typically unpaid) labor has been grossly undervalued — that our economy and society should recognize the value of the man or woman who plays a valuable role at home and/or in the community, with or without kids.

As that other post explains, the domestic sphere is a place of great strength and importance for women. The market economy does not emphasize that, because the market economy is driven by money. When no money moves, the market economy thinks nothing has happened. And yet raising the kids and running the home are essential to create and support workers, so that money can move in the market economy. In this sense, the market economy is a freeloader, a parasite that feeds upon the hopes and hard work of the people — women, especially — who make it all possible.

That, by the way, is not the only form of freeloading built into the the market economy. Freeloading is what it’s all about: avoiding taxes whenever possible; tapping the government for freebies funded by taxpayers; congratulating oneself for paying less than something is worth; giving buyers no more than necessary to make the sale; eliminating competitors so that the customer will have nowhere else to go; exploiting workers in developing nations; failing to correct undetected pricing errors that work out to one’s advantage. The market economy inspires people to hire bookkeepers who will track every penny of unnecessary expenditure; but there is no concomitant calculation of the costs and damages caused by businesses and wealthy individuals who ruin families, friendships, neighborhoods, the environment, the legal system, and anything else that might reduce or interfere with the amounts of money changing hands to their own benefit.

It might be OK if the movement of money created a better world. And, to be sure, it does, in some very appreciated ways. We have better gadgets, better food, better health, and at least we used to have longer lives. In exchange, though, for centuries now, the market has been making the planet permanently less habitable. That would probably not be the long-term outcome of a non-market scheme prioritizing the survival and thriving of the home and community, and of those who will come to live there.

In theory, the market’s destructive tendencies lead to superior results. But in practice, sometimes what was destroyed is never really re-achieved, though the subsequent failure may be well-disguised. Instead of a nation full of healthy and happy communities with deep social networks, we have profitable corporations — and, too often, life within those corporations is a swamp of confusion, dysfunction, and falsehood. In the economy as a whole, and in the individual workplace, there is much truth to the saying about the stages of any big project: it starts with enthusiasm, but then proceeds to disillusionment, panic, and hysteria, followed by a hunt for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and reward for the uninvolved.

This is the nature of the social scheme preferred by feminists who favor market ideology, who seek to make women the equal of men at workplaces designed by predatory males, within an economy conceived by elite males. It is not really a very pro-woman scheme, when compared against the alternative of seeking proper valuation of those spheres of life in which women have traditionally excelled. Feminism ironically values men more than women, insofar as it makes predatory males the objects to be sought after and imitated.

Society does not presently provide much direct financial support for those who would prioritize home and community over workplace and employer. Within practical American morality, as I know from my previous career as a corporate lawyer, it is considered far more admirable to take a fundamentally dishonest job than to refuse and be unemployed. For men facing such a choice, the difference in rewards is enormous: the money you make, the respect and opportunities you receive, the women who are available for you, the future you will have. Conversely, women have long found it advisable, and still find it preferable (even when it is not actually necessary), to choose mates who work longer, focus more on the job than the home, and generate more income. In practice, home and community have become devalued because the market economy has treated some of their most important features as merely optional — so that deep participation in and commitment to them is often secondary if not completely infeasible.

This is the world in which feminists like Pearson become fixated on the wage gap. Marriage in the U.S. is no longer a legally protected institution; it is, instead, a contract easily abrogated or avoided. In this new world, quite often women choose or are compelled to raise children by themselves, typically to the detriment of both mother and child. Now that the deck has been stacked in this way, there tends to be only one solution: given a cohabiting partner at best, along with the instability of cohabitation, the female heirs of feminism do find it essential to take full-time jobs and make as much money as possible.

The financial burdens faced by many women, including especially single and cohabiting mothers, compel them to agree with the feminist solution: women must be paid more. Yet this solution is a mirage. Women tend to be the ones with children and, as such, face a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis men who can work longer hours, and who can accrue more continuous years of experience. Thus Pearson says, women are essentially “forced out [of the workforce] because they cannot afford child care, or find a full-time job that affords them any kind of flexibility.”

The original feminist concept was that it was better to rely on the cold rationality of the market economy than on men: get your own job, pay your own way. A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. But the market’s cold rationality came predominantly from its male founders, male ideas, and male predators. So now feminists are dismayed that the market didn’t turn out to be very sympathetic to female complications of childcare and scheduling.

There might have been an alternative. Before placing blind trust in the market, I might have suggested that feminists try to learn from their more traditional, and more traditionally compassionate, sisters. If feminists had started from a standpoint of caring, nurturing, and growing, they might have noticed the unfortunate effects that predatory males have upon other men as well as women. That is, the feminists might have treated most men as fellow travelers, rather than gratuitously attacking and alienating them. With such an attitude, it might have become obvious that men have often found the workplace to be remarkably difficult and rapacious — draining them, injuring them, paying them no more than absolutely necessary, killing them along the way or in job-related ill health after retirement, often with the added insult of unfunded pensions. Even if feminists had ignored the blue-collars and had looked only at the experiences of men in office jobs not requiring hard labor, they might have realized that employers would probably not care about women’s needs, when (in my own experience) employers have been quite firmly ill-disposed toward a young male trying to be honest, or toward an older one needing a daytime nap. Feminists informed by such realities might have been more realistic about what was likely to happen to all those newly divorced baby-toting female employees desiring flexible schedules.

The Unsurprising Pay Gap

As explained by the American Association of University Women (AAUW, 2017, p. 6), the male-female pay gap is calculated by taking the difference between “median annual earnings in the United States for women and men working full time, year-round.” AAUW gets those numbers from Proctor et al. (2016, p. 6). To correct Pearson slightly, the result of this calculation is a gap of 20 cents, not 21. Moreover, the gap has narrowed significantly: Proctor et al. (p. 10) indicate that the median inflation-adjusted earnings of those men (i.e., full-time, year-round workers) has remained essentially flat since the early 1970s, while the median earnings of the women have risen by one-third, though much of that improvement came in the early years of second-wave feminism.

Thus, we have a 20-cent pay gap: five cents due to discrimination, and 15 cents due to the competitive disadvantages facing many women in the workforce, averaged out across all working women. As quoted above, Pearson characterizes this 15-cent gap as a penalty for “getting hitched.” But that is silly. Neither AAUW nor any other source I have found suggests that marriage itself is responsible for the gap.

The issue is, rather, what women choose to do. Weeden et al. (2016, pp. 78-80) find substantial differences between male and female tendencies to work 50+ hours per week. As of 2014, fathers were more than three times more likely than mothers to work such long hours, and childless males were twice as likely as childless females to do so. That is consistent with other indicators of many women’s relatively weak commitment to male-type working careers. As I noted in another post, Gallup reports a female quest for “greater work-life balance and better personal well-being” on the job. Those are reasonable, humane priorities — and, therefore, as explained above, they are substantially incompatible with the priorities of finance and economics.

The result is predictable. The workplace is prominently not what sensible women need and/or prefer. As a result, Gallup finds that women are more likely to be disengaged at work and “continue to drop out of the workforce in troubling numbers.” But Gallup is wrong to call those numbers troubling. Dropping out of the workforce is precisely what a sensible person should try to do. Only a minority of workers are engaged in their jobs. For the most part, the workplace is not a natural place to be.

As Pearson puts it, “Sure, many women choose to stay home or cut back their hours after having children.” Often, they wouldn’t have to; they just have the common sense to prefer the home, where they can make unique and essential contributions, over the workplace, where they are more easily replaced. According to a summary of research in The Globe and Mail (Wente, 2017), “[D]espite the steady dismantling of barriers to women, women persist in not wanting what men want.” Men don’t typically have such wide latitude to work fewer hours, or to take part-time, lower-paying, more rewarding, and/or lower-stress careers — especially not if they wish to be attractive to women, and to be able to carry the financial weight of the family.

Pearson says that one-third of Americans believe mothers should stay home to care for young children. Yet those who do are at risk of experiencing the “motherhood penalty” — that is, reduced earnings and impaired career potential for some years thereafter, as they attempt to raise kids while finding employment and catching up with males and childless females who, meanwhile, have been working and gaining experience.

These comments suggest that the problem with AAUW’s calculation of a wage gap (above) is that it perpetuates the feminist error of treating men and women as though they were the same, when there continue to be the same old forces driving men to work more, and to be more committed to the workplace, while encouraging women (especially but not only mothers) to work less outside the home. Those forces are not trivial: they result in large differences between working men and women. As noted in the other post, in 2011, fathers spent 76% more hours than mothers, per week, on paid work. Some may find it gratifying to fantasize that someday feminism will eliminate all those differences. But after a half-century of trying, that project appears to have foundered: realities (in e.g., women’s happiness within marriage, and in attitudes toward gendered roles within the household) are still not affirming the old feminist theories.

For such reasons, it appears that men and women who meet the definition of “full-time” employment will continue to add very different levels of value to economic output, as measured by typical economists. What primarily bothers Pearson, then, is not the relatively small (i.e., 5%) problem of unequal pay for equal work by equally qualified men and women. She is primarily objecting to what the market considers appropriate pay differentials for unequal amounts of work by unequally qualified men and women.

In effect, Pearson wants employers, stockholders, customers, and/or fellow employees to help carry the cost of a mother’s decision to have a child. Socialism surely has a place. But this is not a socialist plan to make sure everyone is protected against adversity. This is, too often, a decision to have kids solely to enhance one’s personal happiness — despite research suggesting that, actually, parents’ happiness may suffer; despite the very large, self-imposed cost of having kids; at a time when the nation and the world clearly do not need the burden of having to care for and accommodate still more bodies. Here, again, it would have been heartening to see a long-term feminist commitment to safeguard vulnerable persons of any age, sex, or race — as distinct from a selfish preoccupation with personal preference at the expense of everyone else.

And then there is the most important differential of all: career choice. One of Pearson’s so-called “pay gap deniers” had previously published a Washington Post article (Kessler, 2014) demonstrating that men dominate the ten highest-paying college majors (e.g., mechanical engineering: 90% male) and women dominate the ten lowest-paying majors (e.g., social work: 88% female). On that, I agree with the feminists to some extent, and Kessler probably does too: sex-based discrimination can and does drive people toward or away from certain careers. I would not want to see any boy or girl prevented from his/her dream career because of his/her sex. But I say that as a man whom feminists hounded out of a social work career.

At the same time, there is a fair question as to how many women want those male jobs. I have met many males who tinker with things, who have at least the inclination of a mechanical engineer. Likewise, I have met many females who want to work with mothers, babies, and children — who are social workers in spirit, if not in fact. But I have very rarely met females who tinker with things, or males who want and are encouraged to work with mothers and babies. I understand the feminist belief that this sort of thing can be changed. I know it has been changed for some children. But here, again, for society as a whole, the evidence of many years suggests that the feminist perspective is not effective and may not be correct.

My writings agree that the social work profession would be much improved if it were made more selective. In that case, it would probably pay more. But then it would probably attract more men. Some would still seek it out of interest, as I did; but there would be an increase in the number of those who would seek it due to society’s breadwinner pressure. In that case, men might eventually outnumber women — due, perhaps, to their demonstrated willingness to work longer hours, or perhaps to their superior abilities relevant to some kinds of social work practice. Fear of such an outcome may explain why my own social work professors prevented me from graduating: apparently they did not want to give a PhD to a male who would ask hard questions and offer critical observations about unethical aspects of their profession. God forbid that the staunchly feminist social work profession should endorse a man who would highlight abusive practices.

A Few Closing Rebuttals

Pearson’s article contains other remarks that may be of interest to some readers. This section addresses a few of those remarks, as follows:

  • Pearson cites a New York Times article (Miller, 2016) observing that wages paid to park employees dropped when women began to predominate. The question is, why did women begin to predominate in park jobs? As if to demonstrate how ideology can lead to bad reasoning, Pearson confuses correlation with causation. Another example of that sort of error would be this: it always rains after umbrella sales rise; therefore a rise in umbrella sales causes rain. In other words, it may be that women began to predominate, in parks & rec, after wages began to drop — not the other way around. That could happen if, for instance, the jobs themselves had changed. Perhaps park jobs were previously focused on the physical labor of building and maintaining parks, where there might be an employment advantage for strong workers performing heavy physical labor all day (typically, men). Perhaps park jobs are now mostly about working with the visiting public during peak hours, potentially favoring part-time and/or female workers.
  • Pearson quotes the Times article for a bizarre claim: “It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance. It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less” (sic). The concept appears to be that employers just pull a number out of a hat, and that’s what they pay to their workers. They like men, so they give men a larger number. Most people who have ever held a job will be surprised at the notion that employers were voluntarily giving away money, by paying men more than necessary. Note: the professor making this assertion was a sociologist, not an economist.
  • Pearson offers other examples from that same Times article. I did not take the time to explore them all. But I was curious about that article’s claim that jobs in computer programming began to pay more when male programmers began to outnumber female programmers. As it turned out, the source cited for that proposition discussed technology in the period 1870-1945, when there was no such thing as the field of computer programming. The article made no mention of programmers.
  • Pearson says the U.S. women’s national soccer team was unfairly paid much less than the men’s team while generating more revenue. But another Times article (Das, 2016) paid more careful attention to the details of the situation. It seems that, in fact, top male and female players were paid comparably; contracts were negotiated for multiyear periods, not just for the past year or two when the women’s team performed well; and “Over the long term, the more established men’s game brings in consistently higher game revenue year over year.” It does appear that the women’s team deserved what they gained, in the settlement of their lawsuit (see Forbes, 2017). But evidently not all of their complaints were persuasive — they didn’t get everything they wanted. At any rate, women are not the only ones who have had to sue their employers to get a fair outcome.
  • It is rather dubious to complain about wages paid to women when men are not being hired at all. Consider, for instance, the college professor. In many departments and universities, academia is patently hostile to males. Research by Williams and Ceci (2015) found that female applicants to STEM faculty positions are twice as likely as men to be hired. Another post reports, for instance, that, until I spoke up about it, the School of Social Work at Indiana University had not hired a male in years.
  • Pearson and the Times article (Miller, 2016) offer other examples of high-paid workers (e.g., doctors, lawyers) that, like the soccer team, illustrate an important point detected by Blau and Kahn (2016), two Cornell economists cited by Miller. Blau and Kahn found that the U.S. gender wage gap has “substantially decreased” (p.11) — especially at lower and middle incomes, less so at the top — and that “occupation and industry now constitute the largest measured factors accounting for the gender pay gap” (p. 8). In other words, if you want to experience the pay gap, you should go into a field that offers top-level compensation (e.g., doctor, movie star, soccer star). The averaging calculation used by AAUW (above) means that, on average, the gap will be much less noticeable in low-paid fields.

Conclusion

Women are not paid as much as men. Among full-time, year-round workers, women are paid about 20% less. One-quarter of that is due to discrimination. The remaining 15% is due to what economists consider the relative inferiority of women, though they don’t usually come out and admit that this is the net meaning of their views. Economists consider women inferior — that is, the 15% pay discrepancy typically seems reasonable to economists — because, on average, women work fewer hours and have fewer years of experience in the workforce. Women are also less likely to work at all. The economists’ unspoken assumption is that the only way a woman can make a meaningful contribution to national output is to get into the male-designed and historically male-dominated workforce and produce like a man.

Feminists implicitly agree that women are inferior. Far from agitating for fair recognition of the value of non-monetary contributions to society provided by men and women alike, feminists have deprecated traditional women’s work. In the feminist view, women count by getting out there and doing exactly what the economists say: produce like a man. Feminists expect women to do this while simultaneously attempting things that men do not attempt: “having it all,” as the phrase goes, or more specifically bearing children. In this way, feminists condemn the average woman to mediocrity in both realms: often feeling like less of a mom than she would like to be, or than her mother was, and at the same time not as valuable an employee as her father or husband.

As illustrated in this and other posts in this blog, a doctrinaire feminist commitment to things that are not true, or not feasible, results in distortion and illogic. The journalists cited at the start of this post illustrate such effects. Instead of making sure of their facts, they just assume they know what they are talking about, and skip on to the morality tale, the lecture on simple truths that supposedly mean or stupid people have failed to grasp. To them, it is obvious: we just need to pay the average woman as much as the average man, even though the average woman has less experience, displays less commitment, and works fewer hours.

The alternative solution recommended here is to let men and women alike determine where they are most needed. If men and women decide they are needed at home, then the economy should be structured in such a way as to facilitate that. If the result proves unaffordable, then the question should be revisited — with, again, first priority upon what is best for individuals and households, as distinct from employers.

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