The Wage Gap Explained – Again

This article is so sensible (National Review, 3/14/11).  Honestly, reading it makes me wonder why there’s even a public discussion about the wage gap. 

We know there’s a wage gap; we know why there’s a wage gap; we know that the reasons for the wage gap are in no way controversial.

So why’s there a continuing controversy over the wage gap?  One could almost conclude that some people perceive a benefit in creating controversy where there is none.  But surely they wouldn’t do that, would they?

The article’s author, Sabrina Schaeffer makes it simple, the way so many have before, but she adds a couple of wrinkles that are new, at least to me.

She points out that women earn less than men in this country, not because of discrimination, but because of their own choices and those of men.  Schaeffer of course admits the possibility of discrimination by some employers.  Indeed, the largest employer in the country, Wal-Mart, stands accused of sex discrimination in wages, so it’s certainly not impossible.

But a simple look at the number of sex discrimination complaints filed each year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would tell anyone that there aren’t great numbers of women who think they’re discriminated against. 

And let’s remember that there are about 66 million women and girls over the age of 16 employed in this country along with about 70 million men and boys.  It would take a heap of discrimination against a lot of women to make a dent in the overall earnings figures for that many people. 

And Schaeffer rightly points out that the choices women make that mean they earn less than men fall into two main categories – what jobs they seek and how much they work. 

Just naming the areas of employment in which women workers predominate – teaching, nursing, retail sales and secretary/clerical – says a lot about the jobs women seek.  They’re all honorable occupations, but they don’t pay much compared to, for example, the skilled trades in which men make up the great majority of the workforce.

Now this fact presents a problem to the people who want us to believe that the wage gap results from discrimination – how to explain women’s choices.  Predictably, their fallback position is that it’s society’s fault.  According to that theory, women are just so in thrall to cultural messages that they find themselves pushed into jobs they really don’t want even though they pay less than others.

That betrays a remarkably low opinion of women on the part of those who seriously claim that, in some way women should behave differently than they do.  For my part, I suspect women understand very well the terms of the jobs they choose and that they choose them because they tend to match their values.

Time and again we see studies showing that women tend to value different things in a job than do men.  They tend to like job security and flexible hours more than money and prestige.  As I’ve said before, those preferences mean that in this recession women lost far fewer jobs than did men.  As such, those choices look pretty good.

And sure enough, Schaeffer cite yet another study showing pretty much the same thing.

A study produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2009 considered what factors male and female students use to choose a major. While it”s hard to pinpoint just one reason for their decision, the author found that men and women alike made their choice based on potential outcomes. The difference is that female students on average cared more about “non-pecuniary’ issues like parental approval and enjoyment of future work, while male students were concerned with just the opposite — “pecuniary’ issues such as likelihood of finding a job, earning potential, and social status of future jobs.

And then of course there’s the choice so many women make to do childcare rather than work at all or work full-time.  Again, that’s an honorable thing to do and one I wish men would make more often, but it certainly decreases one’s earnings.

Those who argue that cultural messages force women to make the choices they do like to ignore the fact that it’s women in all walks of life, at all levels of intellect and eduction making those choices.  Studies I’ve remarked on before show the best educated women with the highest earning abilities opting out to raise kids. 

At least three studies of women in S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) and one each of University of Michigan Law School graduates and University of Chicago MBA graduates all show the same thing – lower earnings by women because they chose childcare over work.

Personally, I applaud them for doing that, but it does reduce their earnings.

To that, there’s the old chestnut that women shouldn’t have to make choices.  I thought that had been so thoroughly debunked by now that no one would have the cheek to make the claim.  Apparently I was wrong.  As Schaeffer recounts,

I recently appeared on a television panel with the president of a leading national feminist organization. I shared with her that when I worked on the Hill I accepted a lower salary than I had originally asked for because my husband and I wanted to start a family. I valued my time as much as, if not more than, the money, and I wanted to be in a strong position to negotiate flexible working hours when the time was right. My co-panelist couldn”t understand this. She said, “But you shouldn”t have to choose.’ 

To which an incredulous Schaeffer responds,

Really? Why should my employer be forced to pay me a high salary and give me flexible working hours? Why should someone else take responsibility for my choices? Perhaps a higher salary with flexible hours is something I might earn if I do a good enough job; but the employer still needs someone to get the job done.

On that note, I think I’ll end with an interesting sidelight brought to my attention by a reader.  Here it is.

It seems there’s a dating website named OKCupid.  The good folks at OKCupid study their patrons’ profiles and messaging habits on the site and have learned some interesting things.  Some – like the fact that both women and men add a couple of inches to their height – aren’t surprising.

But, OKCupid’s chart of the ages, incomes and number of messages received is, if not shocking, certainly enlightening.  Scroll down to the section entitled “How many messages a man gets, by age and income.”

Basically, up to age 23, it doesn’t much matter.  Women don’t expect men to be earning much at those ages, and indeed, the men who claim they are high earners, don’t get as many messages as lower-earners.  My guess is that women either don’t believe that a 20 year-old earns six figures or think he’s too focused on work if he does.

Whatever the case, after age 23 guys, your income matters – a lot.  From age 24 to age 50, at which point the chart stops, the more you say you make, the more women are interested in you.  Period.

So that too probably says something about the wage gap.  Women still look for high-earners and that’s in part because marriage to one will more readily allow them to stay home, at least for a while, when the children arrive. 

It’s a choice women make and, contrary to the opinion of those who want the wage gap to be controversial, it makes sense.

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