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Aug 19 2012

Motivated Research on the Wage Gap

Science is our most reliable means for learning about the world–when it’s done right. However, because science has rightly gained a good reputation in these matters, there are plenty of people who want to borrow that reputation for their own ends. It’s not hard to do. All you have to do is do science poorly.

Remember that when you hear about studies that “prove” the wage gap between the sexes isn’t due to discrimination. Bryce Covert takes apart one of these studies in The Nation.

I would love to agree with Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest Bloomberg column, in which he argues that the gender wage gap—in which women on average still make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes—is not caused by discrimination. Ponnuru argues that, rather, it’s caused by different choices women make in their career paths and family formations. Wouldn’t it be great if the gap didn’t exist because women are held back and given less, but because they simply want different things? And it’s certainly true that the fact that women are congregated in a different set of jobs and often have to leave the workforce when they have children plays a role. But even this can’t explain away the gap.

Ponnuru cites research by conservative economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth and a consulting company showing that the gap all but disappears when factors such as women working fewer hours, going part-time or taking breaks from their careers are taken into account. But the Government Accountability Office has already examined this question. The GAO tried to figure out just how much of the gap could be explained by these sorts of factors. To do so, it first performed a quantitative analysis using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative longitudinal data set. It also supplemented that work by interviewing experts, reviewing the literature and contacting employers.

What did the study find?

That was when Covert started bringing the reputable data. It was comprehensive and it was beautiful. Check it out, and save the link for the next time you run across these wage gap “studies”.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    LeftSidePositive

    The other thing is that those “choices” about working fewer hours, taking breaks for family, etc., etc. are based extremely heavily in different social expectations and pressures. It’s not like every woman who stays home with her toddler is making a “choice” to do so–it’s more like she will be persona non grata to her whole extended family if she doesn’t, and her husband might consider it beneath him to actually do half of the childcare, so she has to pick up the slack. Moreover, in our society even a man who wants to stay home with his kids may not even be able to “choose” to do so, if his employers aren’t accommodating, or if his friends & family will shame him for it (especially depending on where he lives & the culture there).

    So, just because someone makes a “choice” to get by in a very difficult and limited situation, does not mean that injustice has magically disappeared!

  2. 2
    Pteryxx

    That article really is a treasure trove. Some more highlights:

    The idea that women are paid less because they choose certain industries or occupations also doesn’t get us very far. Among the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s list of nearly 600 occupations, women make less than men in all but seven of them. And even in those where women make more, the difference is often as slight as a couple of dollars a week. They even make less in each industry: among the BLS’s thirteen industry categories, women make less than men in every single one. What this means is that even in “women’s fields,” men are going to rake in more. In fact, men have been entering traditionally female-dominated sectors during the recovery period, and as the New York Times noted, they’re meeting with great success—“men earn more than women even in female-dominated jobs.” Women can enter engineering all they want, but their pay still won’t catch up to men’s.

    Another, in response to rebuttal:

    There have been other studies along these lines, like one that showed people identical résumés but with some mentioning that the applicant was a mother and others mentioning the applicant was a father. Fathers were offered $6,000 more than non-fathers in compensation; mothers were offered $11,000 less than non-mothers. Studies like these expose our deep-seated ideas about women in the workplace, held by men and women alike, that impact hiring and salary decisions.

  3. 3
    Pen

    The next way this comes into play is when couples, knowing one of them is going to have to short change their career to care for a child (or to support the career of the other), and also knowing which one is going to lose least money by doing so, make the strategic decision that maximises their joint economic situation. That’s really one of the more obvious reasons women end up ‘choosing’ to limit their careers. It’s actually the gender pay gap that causes that choice rather than the other way round*.

    *Though in my experience, the age differential in a lot of couples doesn’t help as well. Starting work 4 to 6 years later than a male partner virtually guarantees that when maximising joint income, his career comes first.

  4. 4
    smrnda

    Yeah, the whole idea about ‘choice’ is bullshit. People are still operating according to traditional ideas about how the division of labor works in the family.

    Does this wage gap exist in other nations, and if so, how much more or less of a problem is it? Do countries with more family friendly regulations that help workers balance work and family have less of a problem than we do?

    And Pyteryxx, thanks for mentioning that study. It reminds me of another one where names that could more easily be labeled as “Black” were less likely to get a callback when 2 almost identical resumes were sent.

  5. 5
    A Hermit

    Bookmarked…

  6. 6
    Ben Zvan

    “Wouldn’t it be great if the gap didn’t exist because women are held back and given less, but because they simply want different things?”

    Actually…no. That would indicate that society has decided that the choices that women tend to make are less valid than the choices men tend to make.

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