(This is one of a series of posts on the wage gap.)
First of all, let’s dispel one common misunderstanding: the pay gap between women and men is not primarily caused by unequal pay for identical jobs. This does occasionally happen, but equal pay laws have by and large eliminated this form of obvious wage discrimination.
So what does cause the pay gap? There’s no simple answer to that question, because all sorts of factors go into creating the pay gap – and, making things more confusing, the different factors inter-relate. Let’s look at what some of those factors are.
First, occupational segregation, in which women and men, due to social structures and also hiring discrimination, are “steered” into certain jobs. This causes some jobs (like child care worker) to be female-dominated, while other jobs (like truck driver) are male-dominated.
For example: In Philadelphia, social scientists sent fictional, equally-qualified resumes to different restaurants. The only important difference between the resumes they sent out was if the name at the top was a woman’s or a man’s. They found that snootier, higher-paying restaurants preferred to hire men, while low-paying places (diners and the like) preferred women. In this way, women were steered into a lower-paying job category: that’s job segregation.
Why does “occupational segregation” matter? It matters because workers in “women’s jobs” are paid less than workers in “men’s jobs.” As journalist Naomi Barko put it, “the biggest reason for the pay gap is not discrimination against individual women but rather discrimination against women’s occupations.” The more women work in a job, the lower the pay in that job is likely to be. (Paradoxically, this means that some men – men in female-dominated workplaces or job positions – are in effect paid less because of discrimination against jobs done by women!)
How much lower is the pay in “women’s jobs”? Different economists have calculated it different ways. The economist Paula England looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (a U.S. government study that measures changes in people’s lives over time), and found that if a white woman in an all-male workplace moved to an all-female workplace, she’d lose 7% of her wages. If a black woman did the same thing, she’s lose 19% of her wages. The economists Deborah Figart and June Lapidus found that if female-dominated jobs had no wage penalty, women’s median hourly pay nationwide would go up 13.2% (men’s pay would go up 1.1%, due to raises for men working in “women’s jobs”).
As anti-feminists often point out, women and men often make different choices: in college major, in hours and years worked, and in what jobs to take. It’s not true that these “free choice” factors account for all of the wage gap, but they certainly account for some of it.
It’s often claimed that these “free choice” factors have nothing to do with sexism (usually this claim is made by people who want you to believe that the wage gap is nothing to be concerned about), because the choices are made by women, not by women’s employers. The reality isn’t so clear-cut, because the choices women and men in our society make aren’t made free of sexism.
For example, full-time year-round women workers work fewer hours than their male counterparts. In 1995, among workers who usually work full-time, men worked 44.5 hours per week on average while women worked 40.8 hours a week on average. Put another way, women worked 92% as many hours as men. (Source: Rones et al).
Anti-feminists claim that this shows that women make less money than men because they choose to work less. This is partly true, but it’s not the whole story. In reality, employers have at least as much to do with how many hours a particular full-time employee works as the employee’s choices. It is employers who decide who is and who is not offered overtime, for example. So while critics of feminism assume that how many hours one works is entirely the employee’s choice, actually we have no way of knowing how much of women’s fewer hours is due to women’s choices, and how much is due to discrimination in who is offered hours of work.
Another example is caretaking. Women are expected to be caretakers – both of children and of any other relatives in need of aid (elderly relatives, for example) – and to do the majority of the housework. This isn’t an example of employers discriminating against women, but it is a society-wide sexism that contributes to the wage gap. The person doing the lioness’ share of the unpaid caretaking work has far less time available for paid work; if men and women divided unpaid caretaking work equally, the paid work would be a lot more equal too. (Like many instances of sexism, this arguably harms both sexes: men are harmed by this same sexist belief because they are expected to work more and robbed of equal contact with their family.)
Nonetheless, even single women without children earn less than similar men, on average. (See, for example, Wood et al’s study of similar male and female lawyers).
Men Get More Credit for Their Work
Men’s work tends to be evaluated as higher-quality than equally-good or better women’s work. This can impact who is offered mentoring, who is assigned a job assignment, who is offered a promotion, and so on – and all of these factors in turn have an effect on the pay gap.
For example, one study of credit in the sciences, published in Nature, looked at productivity (measured in terms of publications in scientific journals, how many times a person was a “lead author” of an article, and how often the articles were cited in scientific journals) and sex. These factors were then compared to how an actual scientific review panel measured scientific competence when deciding on research grants. The results? Female scientists needed to be at least twice as accomplished as their male counterparts to be given equal credit.
Other studies have found similar results (see the bottom of this post for some citations). Men are simply given more credit for their work than women are.
To whatever extent some women freely choose to stay out of the labor market, the choice isn’t made in a void. The fact that women – even non-mothers – get rewarded less for wage-work than men means that women give less up if they choose to trade off paid work for motherhood. Women’s lower pay means women have less reason to stay in the paid work market.
This manifests itself every time a married couple, for whatever reason, has to decide to prioritize one spouse’s pay (and career path) above the other’s. If a couple has to choose whether or not to move to further one spouse’s career, all else being equal they will make whichever choice favors the higher-earning spouse. Similarly, if one person needs to take time off from work to take care of parents, grandparents or children, it makes sense for it to be the lower-paid person. But in most cases, the person with lower pay will turn out to be the woman.
Furthermore, the effect is additive – if a woman makes a sacrifice even once in her career for the couple’s best interests (say, giving up a good entry-level job because he’s been offered a good job in another state), then that’ll lower her pay for the rest of her work life – meaning that the next time such a decision has to be made (and the next, and the next…), her lower salery will seem even more expendable.
Economists call this a “feedback effect”; it’s likely that women earn less because they work less. But it’s also likely that women work less because they earn less.
In 1944, inspired by race riots in Detroit, the influential economist Gunner Myrdal published An American Dilemma, which introduced the concept of “cumulative causation” in discrimination. Although Myrdal was discussing race, the same basic insight can be applied to the wage gap between men and women.
So what does “cumulative causation” mean, in this context? Among other things, it means that the effects of discrimination add up slowly over a lifetime. So, for example, losing a single job offer or promotion probably won’t make a big difference in the short run; but dozens of such small losses over the course of women’s careers eventually add up to a big pay gap.
The economists Robert Wood, Mary Corcoran and Paul Courant examined this question in detail, by looking at the work history of male and female lawyers over time. What they found is that at the start of their careers, women lawyers earned 93% of their male counterparts; but after fifteen years, the women were only earning 61% of what the men made. Even after accounting for hours worked, motherhood, education, and many more factors, women were still being paid only 82% of what similar men took home. (Trish Wilson recently posted more information on this).
Tomorrow I’ll post more on the wage gap, concentrating on refuting some particular anti-feminist arguments. Click on the link below to see the list of references for this post.
Barko, Naomi (2000). “The Other Gender Gap.” The American Prospect, June 19 2000, pages 61-63.
England, Paula, Lori L. Reid and Barbara S. Kilbourne (1996). “The Effect of the Sex Composition of Jobs on Starting Wages in an Organization: Findings from the NLSY.” Demography, volume 33 (4), November 1996, pages 511-521.
Figart, Deborah and June Lapidus (1996). “The Impact of Comparable Worth on Earnings Inequality.” Work and Occupations volume 23 (3) pages 297-318.
Neumark, David (1996). “Sex Discrimination in Restaurant Hiring: An Audit Study.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 1996, pages 915-941.
Rones, Phillip, Randy Ilg and Jennifer Gardner (1997). “Trends in Hours of Work Since the Mid-1970s.” Monthly Labor Review, April 1997, pages 3-14.
Wenneras, Christine and Agnes Wold (1997). “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review.” Nature volume 387, May 22 1997, pages 341-343.
Wood, Robert, Mary Corcoran, and Paul Courant (1993). “Pay Differences Among the Highly Paid: the male-female earnings gap in lawyers’ salaries.” Journal of Labor Economics, volume 11 (3), pages 417-441.
“Other studies have found similar results.” Wenneras and Wold, for example, cite similar results found by Goldberg (1968), Trans-Action, volume 5 pages 28-30; Nieva and Gutek (1980), Acad. Manag. Rev, volume 5 pages 267-276; and O’Leary and Wallston, Review of Personal Social Psychology volume 2 pages 9-43. Also, see Johnson, Dan (1997). “Getting Noticed in Economics: the determinants of academic citations.” The American Economist, volume 41 (1), Spring 1997, pages 43-52. Also, see Goldin and Rouse (1997), “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” NBER working paper No W5903.