I’ve recently had a couple of discussions about this and I realised I didn’t really know the answer. It’s back in the news since the BBC recently announced only two of their 10 highest paid celebrities were women. Journalists at the Financial Times have threatened a strike over gender disparities in pay. And famously, Barack Obama said in his 2014 State Of The Union address that “the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns”.
As ever with statistics, a slew of people from economists, fact checkers, mens’ rights activists and even feminists called Obama out for being misleading. Their objection? Women are paid less because they do less well-paid jobs.
Essentially, if you have ten women, one of whom is a CEO on (£100 000 a year) and 9 of whom are cleaners (on £10 000 a year), the median annual income is £10 000 a year (NB: median not mean). If you have ten men, 6 of whom are CEOs and 4 of whom are cleaners, the median is £100 000. On these statistics, the gender pay gap is either 90% (meaning women earn 10 pence for every pound a man earns) or zero (within each job, men and women are paid equally).
So which is it?
Well, both and neither. The unadjusted statistic is the one generally used. If you walk away with the notion that two doctors, two managers, two veterinarians, two bin collectors or two television presenters would have significantly different earnings because one is a woman and one a man, that statistic alone doesn’t back that up.
So surely it is misleading?
“Harvard prof. takes down gender wage gap myth” screams a Washington Examiner headline whilst a New York Times headline claims “Pay Gap Is Because of Gender, Not Jobs“. Hilariously, they both quote the same woman – Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard. She speaks for herself in this Freakonomics podcast and in her article How to Achieve Gender Equality.
Goldin argues it’s that women choose jobs with “temporal flexibility”. When one looks at industries such as medicine, finance and law where a high value is placed on working long hours, women earn significantly less than men. The case study she uses of pharmacy, where the industry has introduced more flexible working, sees barely any pay disparity at all.
She identifies four factors: women, men, children and organisations. Her argument is that increasing flexibility which solves the organisational problem will have the biggest effect. CEO of New America Anne-Marie Slaughter argues the problem is a masculinity dictating women should be primary caregivers. Susan Chira in NY Times goes further arguing masculinity prevents men from taking typically “female” jobs.
Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, though controversial (I think wrongly so), argues that women themselves could do much to change their fate. And Goldin also makes the point that childcare is a cost not limited to the early years but right the way through school. I could go on.
The Gender Pay Gap isn’t a myth; it’s just not the problem one might think
My point is that often this debate boils down to whether or not employers are, all things considered, picking men over equally qualified women because they’re sexist. Some argue that they are; others argue it’s a myth. Lots of unproductive shouting ensues. Policy doesn’t change.
How much of the gender pay gap is down to discrimination is difficult to quantify. This oft-cited study by Corrine Moss-Racusin et al shows prospective employers would rate a laboratory manager more highly on the basis of their CV if they had a male-sounding name rather than a female-sounding one.
But so much of the gender pay cap is caused by other factors: why are women still the primary caregivers when evidence is scant they’re either more competent or willing? Why don’t women ask for pay rises? Why don’t men want to become nurses?
Until those questions are answered and the resulting problems solved, the gender pay gap, even unadjusted, is still a useful marker of sexism in the workplace.