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April 25, 2014 - 5:32pm

The Feminine Critique: We need a lot more than your two cents


An article published April 7 by Mark J. Perry and Andrew C. Biggs in the Wall Street Journal, boldly entitled “The ‘77 Cents on the Dollar Myth’ About Women’s Pay,” is one of many recent criticisms about the seemingly exaggerated figures used by President Obama and other progressives when discussing gender inequality in wages.

According to the article, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2012” reported that on average women earn 81 percent of what men make in the United States. reported that on average women earn 81 percent of what men make in the United States. But for full-time workers, men were two times as likely as women over 40 hours a week, while women were more likely 35 to 39 hours per week. Once we account for this imbalance in hours worked, the pay gap between men and women shrinks to 88 cents on the dollar. But for single, unmarried women the pay gap is even smaller, perhaps almost negligible — they make roughly 96 percent of what their male counterparts earn.

That is all to say, according to Perry and Biggs, that this “wage myth” is largely exaggerated. According to these authors, the persisting differences in female earnings as can easily be explained by a series of choices made by women themselves:

Childcare. According to Perry and Biggs, the gap starts to emerge when marriage and children come into the picture — childcare takes women out of the workforce and they are less experienced than their male counterparts when they return.

Education. In groups with the same educational attainment, women are more likely to choose fields of study that pay less in the labor market like psychology, sociology, or something liberal arts-focused. Men are more likely to go into finance, accounting and engineering. Men are also more likely to bargain over salaries.

Risk.The most dangerous occupations (loggers, iron workers, etc.) are male-dominated. Because they are riskier, these jobs tend to pay higher salaries. Males are also much more likely to pursue occupations in which compensation is risky from year to year, like law and finance. These jobs pay more to compensate for that risk.

Even if the gap is not 77 cents on the dollar when controlling for marital status, educational attainment and occupations, the gap still persists—that the “77 cents” claim is exaggerated is beside the point. Yes we ought to adjust our statistics accordingly, but declaring the gender pay gap to be a “myth” is dubious. It gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card long before we’ve paid our dues. The 77 cents on the dollar statistic may be exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean it is non-existent. We are not absolved from our duty to remedy obvious workplace discrepancies between men and women on a larger, more nuanced scale. The “choices” listed by Perry and Biggs are in fact, problematic for women in the workforce too—they just can’t be solved by slapping on a couple extra cents to every 77 (or is it 81?) cents a woman makes on the job. And the fact that these choices are not rewarded with big bucks is not clearly the fault of the woman. Here’s why:

Here’s why:

Childcare: It is problematic that women lose out on valuable years of work experience when they have children. This point made by Perry and Biggs only serves to highlight one of the many nuanced obstacles women continue to face in the workplace — little flexibility and accommodation for parents (both male and female) and the fact that many women have to choose lower-paying jobs with more flexibility if they ever want to have children. That is to say, in this regard, women still have to settle. Women still have to plan their lives and careers around the possibility of having to raise a child and getting married. That is not to say that men may not also have these concerns, but the pressure to settle for less in the workplace so that they will not be deemed heartless for choosing work over their children is not nearly as pervasive in the male work experience as it is in that of the female.

Education: Though women may choose to enter particular roles, professions and college majors, and though there has been a praise-worthy effort on national, state and societal levels to incentivize women to enter STEM fields in greater numbers, and to enter into finance and accounting, it is by no means easy for women to do so. That is to say, though women may choose lower-paying professions, they may have come to realize these choices through implicit or explicit discouragement from choosing or feeling welcome in other fields along the way. Despite the large amount of resources and scholarships, many math, science and technology fields which are now some of the highest-paying fields and professions in the United States, are still very difficult to go into and to feel welcome, comfortable and capable in as a woman. These feelings of unease in these fields can start, for many women, long before they ever declare a major in college — it starts in elementary and middle school and continues on through high school.

Risk: It is logical that more dangerous job occupations such as logging, iron working, and so forth should be compensated more for riskier work. What is not logical is that many other jobs may be equally as risky as law and finance, yet may not receive the same exorbitant rates of compensation. How then is leaving the workforce to take care of your child full time, understanding that you may not have a job to come back to in a couple years (or even a couple of months) any less risky than the stock sales made in finance or the cases won or lost in law? How is living day to day on the minimum wage, or living without healthcare, or providing for your family as a single mother or working several jobs at once less risky than law or finance? If risk constitutes grounds for increased compensation, then we owe a lot of people more money.

The fact remains that regardless of how much of a pay gap there is, so long as one persists, and so long as women are still the primary caretakers in the majority of households while also serving as the primary breadwinners in six out of every ten households, so long as 41.5 percent of the Americans who are living in poverty today are single mothers, we are still facing very large obstacles in realizing full female equality in the workplace.

So although the pay gap may be closing, Mr. Perry and Mr. Biggs, there’s no reason to sit back and pat ourselves on the back. We’ve “cured” the easiest part of this behemoth problem. The road towards full equality in the workplace is a lot longer and a lot more twisted than you might think. And we can’t find our way just by giving women 23 cents more each year. It’s a good first step, but we will have to walk miles before we find our way.