Sunday, November 4, 2012

The elephant in the wage-gap room

Is there a real “wage gap” problem?  Like so many other human issues, the answer is both “no” and “yes”.

The wage gap argument centers around the long-standing factoid that women make about three-quarters as much money as do men (in the third quarter of 2012, it was about 82.7%).  There is some variance according to race, with black women leading at 93.2%, Hispanic women at 87.5%, white women at 83.4% and Asian women at 73.1%.  Moreover, this disparity seems to hold across the various categories of jobs, whether we speak of “Management, professional and related occupations” (72.9%) or of “Transportation and material moving occupations” (76.5%).[1]

The best that can be said about the BLS statistics is that, if they don’t give us apples-to-apples comparisons, they at least give us fruit to fruit, root vegetable to root vegetable.  Nevertheless, for social science purposes, they’re more like meat saws and butcher’s cleavers than the precision instruments we want for exploratory surgery.  (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

Going apples-to-apples paints a different picture.  According to Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “if the male counterparts are in the same job with the same experience,” women actually make about 95 cents on the male dollar.[2]  Also, men who work full-time average about 8.3 hours a day, while women average about 7.21 hours — about 13.1% less;[3] even in salaried occupations, the person who puts more time in at the office will be paid more.  Carrie Lukas, writing in the Wall Street Journal, noted that this difference alone accounts for more than one-third of the wage gap.[4]

The numbers I’ve given so far don’t explain the wage gap in its entirety.  The point here is that not all jobs are equal; even ranking them into broad categories, in the manner of the BLS job survey, doesn’t make the SVP of a local firm equal to the CEO of a multinational corporation with billion-dollar quarterly bottom lines.  Far less does it make a part-time cashier at Taco Bell equal to the chief of surgery at a major research hospital.   Furchtgott-Roth’s qualification — same job, same experience — is the only one which can fit both economic reality and the demand for “equal pay for equal work”.  And under that qualification, “equal pay for equal work” is virtually already here.

Where’s the difference coming from, then?  Part of the explanation is that, besides putting in longer hours at the office, more men tend to choose jobs and career paths for their status and compensation than do women.  Women, especially mothers or women who plan to be mothers, will tend to choose jobs and career paths for other reasons, such as enjoyment of future work or availability of flex time.  If a particular position requires 50-75% travel, a man may take it simply for the additional compensation and networking opportunities such a job usually brings, where a woman may avoid it because it would be less satisfying or require too much time away from her family.[5]

Furchtgott-Roth reminds us that, “For men and women, to make it to the corner office requires hours of work and travel and little time for family.  That means missed birthdays, football games, and school productions.  Women seem to mind missing these events more than men.”[6]  Put differently: More men are CEOs partly because more men are willing to sacrifice the personal and family time they would otherwise enjoy.

Again, this is not to deny the reality of discrimination.  But such discrimination as occurs is for the most part in the choice between candidates rather than in determining their compensation.  The larger the company, the more likely it is that the pay for any job below executive level is already set, with only minor room for adjustment based on prior experience. 

The background social patterns behind the wage gap have hardly been exhausted.[*]  There is an elephant in the room, however, and neither conservatives or liberals are talking about it: single teen motherhood.  This should be an obvious talking point in the discussion; the extraordinary number of single mothers who dropped out of school skews the compensation ratio against women.  And, just as obviously, no equal pay initiative or legislation will begin to compensate for this skew unless one of three things happen:

  1. We legislate one national mandatory salary for everyone, from POTUS to part-time janitor.  (Perhaps everyone’s job title should be “Beverly”.)  OR:
  2. We institute a national program of forced abortions and sterilizations that would horrify China.  (Forced abortions are already more common than you think.)[7]  OR:
  3. We stop enabling teen/premarital sex by throwing pills and condoms at the problem, and start working our way back towards sane, healthy sexual mores.  Should I hold my breath?

In sum, then, the “wage gap” is not caused by women getting paid less than men for equal work.  Rather, much if not most of the difference is explained by the different value-sets and desires men and women bring into their career choices and job expectations.  Both men and women will trade off high pay and status for job satisfaction and more family time … women just tend to do it more often than men do. 

This, however, may not be the case much longer, as women are graduating from college in greater numbers than do men.  A recent study of urban, childless emerging adults found women between 22 and 30 out-earning their male compatriots by 8%.  Lukas, who cites the study in her WSJ piece,[8] recently commented, “… [O]n many measures, women—particularly young women—are doing far better than men.  They are more educated, more optimistic and motivated about the future, and have longer life expectancies and better health than men.”[9]

As for the elephant in the wage-gap room, we as a nation and a culture need to confront the absolute failure of the “contraceptive mentality” to solve the problem.  That, I fear, will be much harder to accomplish than it will to pass another court-clogging, government-expanding law.

[*] The Independent Women’s Forum has plenty of resources and fact sheets about the “equal pay” issue:

[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012, October 18). Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers, Third Quarter 2012. Retrieved November 2, 2012 from Bureau of Labor Statistics:
[2] Furchtgott-Roth, D. (2012, October 17). Obama and Romney on the Wage Gap. Retrieved November 2, 2012 from National Review Online:
[3] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012, June 22). American Time Use Survey — 2011 Results. Retrieved November 3, 2012 from Bureau of Labor Statistics:
[4] Independent Women’s Forum. (n.d.). Get the Facts: On the Wage Gap for Women.  Retrieved November 2, 2012 from Independent Women’s Forum:
[5] Lukas, C. (2011, April 12). There Is No Male-Female Wage Gap. Retrieved November 2, 2012 from the Wall Street Journal:
[6] See The Elliot Institute. (2012, August). Forced Abortion in America: A Special Report, p. 26. Retrieved October 27, 2012 from
[7] Furchtgott-Roth (2012).
[8] Lukas (2011).
[9] Lukas, C. (2012, October 17). From the Debate: The Wage Gap and the Daughters v. Sons Myth. Retrieved November 2, 2012 from Independent Women’s Forum: