The wage gap and women’s work

You’ve heard all the excuses to wave away the wage gap between men and women: it’s because men work harder, work longer, don’t get pregnant, and choose to work in more prestigious, higher paying fields. The people who make these arguments seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the values that define the worth of kinds of work are entirely socially constructed (they deny the worth of the concept of social construction, for one thing). I just like to point out that if these claims were valid, and there was an objectively earned reward for hard work and time, then my father, who worked two jobs and came home exhausted with the grime of manual labor ground into his hands, should have been a billionaire.

But another point they evade is that there is an instant devaluation of a profession as soon as women begin to populate it. It’s useful to take a historical perspective and see how work is demeaned when it’s percieved as “women’s work”, as in this criticism of James Damore’s memo.

Damore seems to have bought into the conclusions of the worst kinds of evolutionary psychology. As a discipline, “evopsych” too often depends on inventing biological explanations for observed reality, rather than considering influences from culture and society. In the memo, Damore argues that “science” shows men are evolved to be more suited to computer programing. Science, of course, shows nothing of the sort. People who actually study the neuroscience of gender disagree with Damore’s conclusions. Moreover, as many folks quickly pointed out, women were the first coders. Programming was initially regarded as an extension of secretarial work, but men took over when the profession’s status (and pay) began to rise. “Computer girls” were replaced by “computer geeks” thanks to social factors, not biological ones. So much for Damore’s ideas.

There are other examples I did not know about! When men took over brewing (or when brewing became more profitable), the value of the work shifted.

Take brewing. In 14th-century England, women did most of the brewing, as Bennett first explores in a 1986 article on the village alewife. These brewsters made ale, which spoiled quickly after the cask was broached, so they would keep some for their family and sell the rest. Often, the small profits from these sales would enable them to buy ale, in turn, from other women while they waited to make a new batch. But then beer arrived in England from the Low Countries. Thanks to the preservative power of hops, it could be brewed and sold at commercial scale. The village alewife was gradually replaced by larger and larger brewing enterprises, requiring access to capital. Although there were exceptions, men had much easier access to capital than women. By the end of the 15th century, men dominated medieval English brewing.

And then there’s weaving.

One could tell a similar story about weaving, only in reverse. In the 14th century, weaving was a high-status, high-profit trade. Most weavers were men. Industrialization turned weavers into a lower-status occupation, so early-modern textile weavers in factories were generally women. It would be a mistake, as Bennett argues in her book History Matters, to merely observe the change in occupation—women become weavers—and thereby argue that women’s material or cultural status had improved. Change in occupation, she writes, does not mean transformation of status.

What I find odd is how often critics of these facts are painfully naive and ignorant about the complexity of the field they’re denying. See, for instance, this debate between Kristi Winters and Sargon of Akkad: right out of the gate, he claims the wage gap doesn’t exist at all (he also denies that campus rape is a problem…or rather, because rates are higher elsewhere, it’s a waste of time to work against it), and most significantly, just flat out rejects all of the social sciences. Which is weird, since his arguments against feminist ideas require distorting social science evidence while simultaneously claiming all social science is bogus. How does anyone know anything if you think all the disciplines that study a particular phenomenon are completely invalid?


  1. Greta Samsa says

    I was appalled to find that some people actually consider Sargon to be interesting, analytical, or anything but an ill-informed ass with an abundance of poorly-considered positions.

  2. says

    The people who make these arguments seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the values that define the worth of kinds of work are entirely socially constructed (they deny the worth of the concept of social construction, for one thing).

    The best example of this is the medical profession. Doctors in western countries are highly paid, and being a surgeon or MD is a prestigious occupation. But in eastern europe (Russia, Poland, etc.) being a doctor is as prestigious as being a janitor. The only difference? In Russia, being a doctor is considered “women’s work”.

    Programming was initially regarded as an extension of secretarial work, but men took over when the profession’s status (and pay) began to rise.

    This is backwards – the profession’s status and pay began to rise because men took over, not the other way around. It’s happened in more than one field. And when the reverse happens (women moving to a male-dominated field), median pay goes down.

  3. robro says

    As I’m sure everyone knows, the person considered the first computer programmer, Augusta Ada Lovelace, was…you guessed it…a woman. She was a mathematician and writer who developed programs for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

    As I understand it, the Analytical Engine used punch cards for programs, the idea derived from punch card-based weaving systems used in the commercial textile industry. I wonder if we know who produced the punch card programs for the looms.

    As for women’s work in the computer industry, quite a few of the earliest electric/electronic computer programming was done by women. My first job in San Francisco in 1974 was at a publisher that had a computerized subscription system. That programming team was largely women.

  4. emergence says

    I’m also noticing a bit of inconsistency on part of the anti-feminists in claiming that women aren’t paid less than men while simultaneously claiming men are paid more because they work harder and don’t get pregnant. It’s like they’re insisting that the wage gap is justified while simultaneously claiming it doesn’t exist. Are different people making these claims, or are anti-feminists just contradicting themselves?

    Beyond distorting social science to support their ideas while simultaneously calling all social science invalid, I want to point something out about anti-feminists’ love of evolutionary psychology. Evo-psych seems a lot like an ofshoot of social science that’s been retooled to appeal to genetic determinist shitheads. It barely ever involves actual genetic or neurological experiments. Most evo-psych studies seem to just involve behavioral tests or surveys that the authors invent evolutionary just-so stories to explain. Evo-psych is basically the straw man that assholes like Carl Benjamin accuse real social science of being. Evo-psych just tacks on pseudo evolutionary rationale to appeal to adherents of scientism and defenders of the status quo.

  5. jrkrideau says

    As I’m sure everyone knows, the person considered the first computer programmer, Augusta Ada Lovelace, was…you guessed it…a woman.

    Well no, I don’t know that. Nor, apparently, do a number of historians of science.

    It looks like this story is close in stature to the Galileo myth.

    My first computer science professor was a woman who reputedly worked on Eniac. Her photos of what appeared to be miles of racks of vacuum tubes (valves for the UK types) were impressive. I have always assumed they were from Eniac.

    As far as I can remember, the class was roughly 50-50 male–female but we are talking a long time ago, back in the punch card era.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Robo
    I wonder if we know who produced the punch card programs for the looms.
    Fascinating question. Someone would have to produce the algorithm or equivalent and then program it but the few times I have read about a Jacquard loom the punched cards just seemed to magically appear and I never noticed it.

  7. jrkrideau says

    I was just thinking of secretaries and personal assistants. Being a secretary in the 18th and 19th century may have been a good start to a career if you were male, though I’m going on a sample of two.

    A quick look at the wiki for Andrew Carnegie confirmed that he really got his start in business as a secretary to a railway executive who hired him as a combined secretary and telegraph operator.[1]

    I remember reading a bit of the memoirs of a senior Canadian civil servant who started off as the personal assistant of a cabinet minister. He mentions that those long hours of learning Pittman shorthand paid off.

    As far as I can see, once secretarial or PA positions became more of a female job, this career path narrowed drastically or was completely cut off. I could well be wrong but ….

    1. Many businessmen and senior politicians would have direct telegraph service to their offices and homes in the second half of the 19th C until the telephone became more popular. (Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet)

  8. jrkrideau says

    #5 emergence

    I’m a psychologist by training and just about every time I head or read about an enviro-psych explanation of a trait or behaviour I feel I have entered an alternative universe or I am listening to Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide.

    I have read one or two enviro-psych articles critiquing some social psych methodologies that made sense but believing enviro-psych explanations, well maybe one day I’ll meet one I might consider.

  9. Andrew Dalke says

    jrkrideau in #6 write “I don’t know that. Nor, apparently, do a number of historians of science”. The statement was “the person considered the first computer programmer”. You linked to a page describing why she did not “[inspire] the first modern computer”. These are two different things.

    I think you should have linked to wherein the same author, an amateur historian of science, writes “It is a historical fact that she did not write the first computer programme, as is still repeated ad nauseam every time her name is mentioned.” Or perhaps “The afore mentioned puff piece from her pen contained one, note the singular, specimen program for the Analytical Engine, which she might possibly have written, although it seems more probable that Babbage wrote it. All the other programs for the Analytical Engine, and there were others were written by, you’ve guessed it, Charles Babbage.”

  10. says

    @6 jkrideau

    Your linked article debunks the idea that Lovelace “inspired the first computer” or built it. That was not the claim.

    The claim was that she invented SOFTWARE, by being the first to provide a method to program the first computer, designed by Babbage. This claim is supported by your link.

  11. says

    I wonder why this one amateur historian man (whose ABOUT says his interest in science history was inspired by a book called ‘Men of Mathematics’) is so incensed by this still reasonably well supported claim.

  12. jrkrideau says

    # 11 Andrew Dalke
    You’re right. That’s what I get for being in a rush and only glancing at Thoney’s text. I still think it is not that bad a link but certainly the ones you supplied are more to the point.

    12 abbeycadabra
    See Andrew’s links at 11. He, properly reproves me for posting the wrong link.

    13 abbeycadabra
    Well, a major reason is that he dislikes inaccuracies and myths in the history of science. If you care to follow up on the links Andrew provides and then the links that Thoney provides you will see that the term “reasonably well supported claim” is not necessarily appropriate.

    BTW, Thoney seems just as happy demolishing unwarranted claims for men. He’s something of an equal-opportunity demolisher of myths.

    You should read him on “Giordano Bruno” though I think it was Tim O’Neill rather than Thoney who called Bruno the Renaissance version of Depak Chopra.

  13. thirdmill says

    Emergence, No. 5, and jrkrideau, No. 10, I am far from convinced that evolutionary psychology has been proven, but I sometimes wonder if the problem with it is that it’s being abused for political purposes rather than with the theory itself. It seems intuitive to me that some behaviors are evolutionarily advantageous, so it’s not a huge leap to suggest that people who practice those behaviors are more likely to pass along their genes than those who do not. But it does not follow from that that *every* behavior has an evolutionary explanation.

    For example, human offspring that are nourished and protected by their parents are far more likely to survive and reproduce than human offspring that are abandoned at an early age, so what exactly is outlandish about suggesting that protective parenting might have become evolutionarily hard wired into our psychology? On the other hand, the idea that women with thin waists are preferred as sex partners — that’s cultural. Accepting one as hard wired does not require accepting the other as hard wired.

  14. Andrew Dalke says

    jrkrideau pointed to some writings of an amateur historian of science, who correctly objects to the praise given to Lovelace for things she never did, such as “inventing the computer”. However, historians disagree as to what she did, and there are different camps. I do not think you can treat Thony C.’s views as definitive or even reflective of a general consensus among historians.

    For example, consider the statement “It is a historical fact that she did not write the first computer programme”. A few years ago Steven Wolfram investigated what he called the “mystery of Ada”, at . He gives some examples of earlier programs by Babbage: “Meanwhile, in the collection of Babbage’s papers at the Science Museum, there are some sketches of higher-level operations on the Analytical Engine. For example, from 1837 there’s “Elimination between two equations of the first degree”—essentially the evaluation of a rational function.”

    This is several years before Lovelace’s Note G to compute Bernoulli numbers, so in that sense no, Lovelace did not write the first program. But what is a “programmer”? Is it simply “one who writes a program”? A hardware designer might write some test programs, but that doesn’t turn the hardware designer into a programmer.

    Let’s return to Thony C’s statement “Ada Lovelace wrote a puff piece about that computer, which was in all probability largely ghost-written by Babbage.” But Wolfram, who unlike Thony C. is an expert in programming and mathematics, strongly disagrees.

    Wolfram writes that in Babbage’s programs “there’s nothing as sophisticated—or as clean—as Ada’s computation of the Bernoulli numbers. Babbage certainly helped and commented on Ada’s work, but she was definitely the driver of it.”

    He continues “To me, there’s little doubt about what happened: Ada had an idea of what the Analytical Engine should be capable of, and was asking Babbage questions about how it could be achieved. If my own experiences with hardware designers in modern times are anything to go by, the answers will often have been very detailed. Ada’s achievement was to distill from these details a clear exposition of the abstract operation of the machine—something which Babbage never did. (In his autobiography, he basically just refers to Ada’s Notes.)”

    Merging several paragraphs into one, “Babbage’s Analytical Engine is the first explicit example we know of a machine that would have been capable of universal computation. Babbage didn’t think of it in these terms, though. He just wanted a machine that was as effective as possible at producing mathematical tables. But in the effort to design this, he ended up with a universal computer. When Ada wrote about Babbage’s machine, she wanted to explain what it did in the clearest way—and to do this she looked at the machine more abstractly, with the result that she ended up exploring and articulating something quite recognizable as the modern notion of universal computation. … Ada Lovelace was the first person ever to glimpse with any clarity what has become a defining phenomenon of our technology and even our civilization: the notion of universal computation.”

    And that is why Ada Lovelace is considered the first programmer, and why I think Thony C.s conclusions are not correct.