Is the gender gap in wages a myth or is it as the President said yesterday just math? If a company pays, as does the White House and most other government agencies, equally for the same job, why is there still a gap in total pay? Is that as Christina Hoff Summers would argue, not a wage gap since the cause is that women are in different job? Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post
The American Enterprise Institute caught the White House flat-footed yesterday with its finding that female White House workers earned roughly 88 cents to the dollar compared to male employees. This came the day before two high-profile executive orders aimed at narrowing the gender wage gap among federal contractors.
When asked about the discrepancy by reporters, spokesman Jay Carney said that those figures are based on the total of all staff jobs, and that women tend to fill more lower-paying positions than men. When you break it out by position, “men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries,” Carney said. Incidentally, this is the pretty much the same argument that AEI scholar Christina Hoff Summers makes to argue that the gender wage gap is a myth.
Human Resource people (of which I was once one) would say it is all about classifying jobs. There is an endless debate about what jobs require more skills, more effort, more responsibility. Is the woman who comes to help your sick mother as a home health aide worth less than the man who manages the local convenience store? (Neither gets paid very well.) Is a pre-school teacher worth less than the CEO of Facebook? Ok. I can hear people saying that I’m comparing apples and oranges, but these are the kind of things we need to consider as we look at not only the gender issues but also at low wage jobs generally. If you look at the Washington Post chart, you can see that the national wage gap is pretty constant, but the general trend of the White House gap is down.
There are really several problems at work here. First is the failure to pay women an equivalent wage for the same work done by a man. This may be deliberate or the women may simply be given a different job title and classification. The second is what the Institute for Women’s Policy Research calls occupational segregation.
Pay equity may also be impacted by other more subtle factors than workplace discrimination. IWPR’s research shows that, irrespective of the level of qualification, jobs predominantly done by women pay less on average than jobs predominantly done by men. Women have made tremendous strides during the last few decades by moving into jobs and occupations previously done almost exclusively by men, yet during the last decade there has been very little further progress in the gender integration of work. This persistent occupational segregation is a significant contributor to the lack of significant progress in closing the wage gap.
The third problem is one that speaks mainly to women in the private sector at high levels: Women appear to be less willing to ask for more in salary negotiations. While this is unimportant and insignificant, more women are hurt by the first two problems.
In the late 1970s I was working as a research analyst for the Virginia State Equal Opportunity Office. We got a complaint from a woman professor at a state college who suspected that she was being paid less than a male colleague who started around the same time as she did. They were, I think, both coming up for tenure. This was the age before editable spreadsheets were common, but I managed to make a chart showing hire dates, educational levels, teaching load and teaching evaluations among other factors I can’t remember now for that department. When laid out, it became very clear that the women, including the complainant were being paid less. This set off a request for an analysis of the entire school as well as requests from several other state colleges and universities. I ended up teaching people from the schools how to do this themselves since there was no way I could tackle such a large project on my own. Problems were corrected, but I don’t recall that we ever compared salary levels at the Department of Physics (probably mostly men) to the School of Nursing (mostly women).
I tell this story for two reasons. One, the problem and issue has been around a long, long, time. And second, I think we need to look harder at occupational segregation and, if we can’t totally solve that, we need to look at how we, as a society, value what we call “women’s work.” In the end, that is the only way to cure the pay equity problem.