Myth: The pay gap only exists because women haven't been in the workplace as long as men (wage gap series, part 6)

(This is one of a series of posts on the wage gap.)

This is a very common argument. In this view, the pay gap is only still around because women only recently entered the workforce; as such, women haven’t had as much time to work their way up the employment ladder to the well-paid positions. There’s no need to “do” anything about the pay gap; if we just wait, it’ll go away by itself.

What I always want to know is, exactly how long must we wait until we can admit that this argument no longer makes sense? The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was forty years ago, for goodness sake! A woman who had been in the workforce five years when the Equal Pay Act was passed might well be retired by now, and the pay gap still hasn’t gone away.

Work experience doesn’t account for the pay gap.

The fact is, workplace experience makes a very large difference – but it doesn’t make all the difference. The economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn (Journal of Labor Economics, January 1997) calculated the impact of a number of factors on the wage gap. The largest factor (other than “unexplained”) was labor force experience; the average female worker has 12.79 years of full-time experience, while the average male worker has 17.41. This difference accounted for between 26% and 30% of the total wage gap – meaning that even though work experience is the biggest factor in the pay gap, it still leaves most of the pay gap unaccounted for.

Another approach was taken by the economists Robert Wood, Mary Corcoran and Paul Courant (Journal of Labor Economics, 1993). They examined one profession (lawyering) in great detail, following the careers of female and male graduates of the University of Michigan Law School. Fifteen years after graduation, the women in their sample were earning 61% of what men earned. A lot of that difference is because many women had taken time off from work, or worked fewer hours, in order to raise children. But even when work experience and hours were accounted for, women still earned only 82% of what men earned. Again, even after you account for experience, there’s still a large pay gap between men and women.

Why assume that workplace experience isn’t affected by sexism and discrimination?

When anti-feminists say that workplace experience shows that discrimination doesn’t exist, they’re sneaking an unjustified assumption into the argument. Because part of the pay gap can be accounted for by experience, that part of the wage gap doesn’t, they say, have anything to do with discrimination. But is it logical to believe that discrimination wouldn’t have any effect on work experience?

As the economist Francine Blau and her colleagues point out, these arguments “neglect the feedback effects of labor market discrimination on the behavior and choices of women themselves. For example, women have traditionally received lower returns to labor market experience than men. The lesser amount of work experience which they have accumulated may be due in part to their response to these lower returns.” (On page 192 of Blau, Francine, Marianne Ferber, and Anne Winkler’s1998 book. The Economics of Men, Women and Work, third edition.)

In other words, there’s a vicious cycle at work here. If women are discriminated against at work, so they get less pay for what they do, that means women will be less motivated than men to work, and will therefore wind up with less work experience. So while the pay gap is partly caused by women’s lesser work experience, at the same time the pay gap partly causes women’s lesser work experience.

This entry posted in Economics and the like, Gender and the Economy, The Wage Gap Series. Bookmark the permalink. 

6 Responses to Myth: The pay gap only exists because women haven't been in the workplace as long as men (wage gap series, part 6)

  1. 1
    pril says:

    i’m just wondering if i’m an antifeminist for never having experienced this wage gap. D’you suppose it has anything to do with never working for a corporation, just mostly small businesses, and in “male-dominated” industries (like automotive service) for the most part? I never really thought about the wage gap because, in my 18 years of working, i’ve never experienced it, and neither have the majority of my (female) friends. I’m not denying it exists, just that i’ve never personally seen it in action. And, i’ve been honestly wondering why that is since i started reading your series.

    Is this a symptom of corporate work or does it cross over into small business (100 employees or less)? And where is it seen more? Has this (corp vs. small biz) aspect been discussed/dissected much?

  2. 2
    Morphienne says:

    I’ve seen it. I work in a company that has five secretaries and five bosses in this branch. ALL of the bosses are men. ALL of the secretaries are women. The state office of my corporation (whose CEO is male) is in constant contact with the division office I work at. Having worked here a year, and having answered seven lines of phones for the entirety of that time, I have spoken to nearly all of the bosses from one department or another, and nearly all of the secretaries from one department or another. Thus far I have not spoken to ANY female bosses, or ANY male secretaries. Period.

    How did this happen? Is it the result of discrimination? I’d like to believe it is, because my alternative is to think that women aren’t driven to do good work, or that they’re just not as good at what they do as men are; or that men are so stupid they don’t realize how much their jobs suck and so display a puppy-like enthusiasm for them. As I said, I haven’t been working here very long, and to be honest this is my first real foray into the “job market.” It is not, I must say, what I thought it would be.

  3. 3
    Anon says:

    Are you sure you haven’t experienced it? Do you know the wages of all your co-workers? How about workers in competing businesses in the same industry?…

    In the US it’s often considered impolite to ask people how much money they make, so how would you know if you were only getting 90% of what a comparable male employee was?

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