The truth about the gender wage gap


You know, what I’ve always said about the gender wage gap discussion is that it needs more stick figures…

I will now be sending this link to anyone who cites the 79 cents on the dollar statistic without context. (I had previously used a piece I wrote for the Boston Globe, but I think the lack of pictures was kind of a deal breaker.) I feel like it should be clear to most people that you can’t attribute the entire difference in male versus female wages to employers literally seeing ovaries and applying a 21 percent salary discount, but even the slightest bit of nuance seems lost on this issue (and, frankly, doesn’t put women in a positive light intellectually as a result). Not surprisingly, a bit of the difference can be attributed directly to the ovaries discount (i.e. not getting “equal pay for equal work”), and a chunk of the difference can be attributed to occupational choices (which some argue are partly discrimination based), and some of the difference does appear to correlate with hours worked. Far more surprisingly, a large chunk of the difference can be attributed to workplace inflexibility, under which caregivers have no option but to take (explicit or implicit) “mommy track” positions, leaving the status and disproportionate raises and such for others.

I find this argument hard to make- not as in I don’t believe it, as in I literally find it difficult to get people to not misinterpret this finding. The common response I get is “yeah, but people who work more *should* get paid more.” That’s kind of hard to argue with, though it’s not quite what the research is calling out- the research specifically cites *disproportionate* differences in pay for those who work longer or less flexible hours, or, equivalently, differences that remain once number of hours worked is controlled for. For example, a 60 hour a week worker who makes $100,000 per year versus an equivalent 40 hour a week worker who makes $50,000 would illustrate the inflexibility gap, since the former works 1.5 times as much but gets paid twice as much. Similarly, a 9-5 worker who makes $60,000 versus a 6-2 worker who makes $50,000 would also illustrate the gap, since there appears to be a compensation reward not for more hours but for more typical hours. Hopefully that helps clear things up.

I think the researchers are right in that “equal pay” legislation often goes awry because the root causes, as we see here, are really hard to legislate. I’m a creative person, but I have yet to come up with a good way to identify which professions are being unnecessarily inflexible (probably a lot, but certainly not all) and develop a rubric for appropriate workplace flexibility. As such, it’s probably not surprising that a lot of the probably well-meaning legislation is kind of wonky, but not in the proper nerd sense of the word. For example, just in the last few days, Massachusetts passed what is being called an “equal pay for comparable work” law, which, as stated, addresses only a small part of the underlying issue. Interestingly, the provisions of the bill itself are more roundabout- the bill outlaws asking for salary history, for instance, and the legislators hope that this will prevent initially small differences in pay from snowballing over time. Examples like these show that even when policymakers have decent goals in mind, it’s not particularly clear how to write rules that will achieve those goals.

As the researchers note, there are a number of professions that have self organized in order to provide greater flexibility to workers and, as an intended or unintended consequence, narrowed the gender pay gap. That said, I expect there to be more pushback regarding these sorts of policies than the researchers (or even employers) acknowledge, since one of the key components to increasing workplace flexibility appears to involve “making workers interchangeable.” I would expect employees to push back against interchangeability on the grounds that interchangeability decreases their leverage vis a vis employers. (I might even expect objection from those whom the flexibility would benefit, since interchangeable sounds intuitively bad to some degree.) I would particularly expect employees who don’t value flexibility to push back, especially if the inflexible scenario gets reframed as “workers who can work 80-hour weeks capture economic rents.” Under that regime, I wouldn’t necessarily want to go messing with the status quo either (as that 80-hour worker of course). I’d like to think otherwise, but I have a feeling that this last consideration is going to be a significant impediment to change along the workplace flexibility dimension.

The truth about the gender wage gap


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