The XX Factor

Accounting for the Wage Gap

Today’s assignment-pay federal income taxes!-got me thinking about last week’s wage gap debate. Emily , I share your skepticism about the Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that there is no gender wage gap. What the author, Carrie Lukas, actually seems to be arguing is that there is a male-female wage gap-that is to say, women working full-time make less than what men working full-time make, overall-but we shouldn’t worry about it because females are the ones responsible. Women, she suggests, create the pay gap by self-selecting into lower-paying, less demanding occupations and by not working as many hours as men do. In her view, it’s “feminist hand-wringing” to get all worked up about any disparity in pay.

You tend to hear this argument from a variety of people, not all of them anti-feminist, who find it convenient and maybe psychologically easier to dismiss the wage gap as the product of women choosing to go into certain fields and not others. If women made the gap-if women prefer the gap, on a certain level-then we can just not worry about it and move on. This argument drives me crazy, just as it drives me crazy when the gender wage gap is blamed solely on discrimination. In fact, there is no one, sole, lonely, individual cause of the gender wage gap. Like most things involving women and men and work and family, it’s due to a rich, complicated stew of mutually reinforcing causes.

Anybody genuinely interested in a nuanced breakdown of the wage gap might spend a couple of pleasant hours with the 6 th edition of the scrupulously objective economics textbook, The Economics of Women, Men, and Work , by Francine Blau, Marianne Ferber, and Anne Winkler. In an elegant dissection, the authors show that over half of the wage gap can indeed be explained by occupational and industry segregation-women staying out of certain jobs and congregating in others-and by the fact that women as a whole still have less labor market experience than men (something that will change eventually, I’d say), which gives men a wage advantage, simply by dint of the fact that men overall have been in the workplace longer and garnered more seniority and raises. This still, however, leaves a substantial portion of the gap that is unexplained. The authors go on to carefully consider a variety of possibly contributing factors-childbearing, for one, as well as the personality trait Emily and KJ discuss: women’s apparent reluctance to negotiate for higher wages. Here, though, I’d argue that this is not always women’s fault: If, for example, husbands tend to be less willing to move for their wives’ careers than wives are for their husbands-and it’s fair to say this is the case-women are less able to say to a boss, “If you don’t give me this raise, I’ll just take my excellence and move it to a different company.” It’s not always a matter of our being unwilling to speak up for ourselves or not knowing how to do it. If you are going to bargain, you have to have, as the economists say, a credible threat.

Even taking into account these contributing factors, the authors conclude that labor market discrimination may well explain some 40 percent of the gender wage gap. “We conclude,” the authors write, “that discrimination does indeed exist.” 

In other words, two things can be true simultaneously. Part of the gap can be caused by self-segregation into certain occupations (something that’s changing all the time, though, as women invade fields like veterinary medicine, not to mention law, business, etc., so you even have to be careful with this argument), but another part can be caused by discrimination. Sometimes, both can be at work at the same time. Look at the class-action discrimination case against Wal-Mart that was recently heard by the Supreme Court. As summarized in the Times , one female assistant manager alleged in her supporting papers that when she found out a male assistant manager with less experience was making $10,000 more per year than she was, she complained to a supervisor and was told the man had a family to support. She did, too, but never mind. Here we have a woman who I guess you could say had self-selected into the stereotypically female retail sector (or maybe it just seemed like the only option), a woman who even so was not reluctant to ask for higher wages; and when she did, she allegedly found that a different standard was being applied to her than to a man. It’s striking how, even now, men are seen as family providers, and women as working for superfluous pin money.

That’s presumably the reason why today, lots of two-career couples will be filing returns in which only one member of the family is considered the taxpayer, and the other person, though paying taxes on earnings, is merely the spouse. This also drives me crazy.

I do agree with Lukas that the wage gap has closed a lot over time, and we should celebrate this more than some liberal advocates seem to want to.

But why can’t we just agree that there is a complicated set of reasons why women make less than men do, and figure out what to do about it? Why does the debate have to be so polarized? I guess that’s a silly question to ask, in Washington.