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The Equal Pay Day Reality Check

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The claim that American women as a group face systemic wage discrimination is groundless.

Today is Equal Pay Day. Feminist groups and political leaders have set aside this day to protest the fact that women’s wages are, on average, 78 percent of men’s wages. “This date symbolizes how far into 2010 women must work to earn what men earned in 2009,”says the National Committee on Pay Equity. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has enlisted supporters to wear red “to represent the way the pay gap puts women ‘in the red.’” There will be rallies, speak outs, mass mailings of equity e-cards, and even bake sales featuring cookies with a “bite” taken out to represent women’s losses to men. The National Organization for Women (NOW) suggests women gather together at local bars for “Un-happy Hours” where they can share their dissatisfactions. “See if a local bar, club, or restaurant (try the women-owned ones first!) will give you drink specials [where] women pay 78% of their tabs and men pay 100%.”

Excuse me for interrupting, but this holiday has no basis in reality. Even feminist economists acknowledge that today’s pay disparities are almost entirely the result of women's different life choices—what they study in school, where they work, and how they balance home and career. This is not to deny that some employers will try to pay Jill 78 cents and Jack $1.00 for an identical job. But our strict laws give Jill the right to take that employer to court. The claim that American women as a group face systemic wage discrimination is groundless.

Even feminist economists acknowledge that today’s pay disparities are almost entirely the result of women's different life choices.

There are by now many reputable studies that refute the assertion that women are being cheated out of a fair salary by unscrupulous employers. In January 2009, the Labor Department posted a study prepared by the CONSAD Research Corporation, “An Analysis of the Reasons for the Disparity in Wages Between Men and Women." It analyzed more than 50 peer-reviewed papers. Labor Department official Charles E. James Sr. summed up the results in his foreword:

This study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.

Psychologist Susan Pinker has aptly noted that men are more likely than women to give priority to salary and promotions over personal fulfillment. Women are not as ready to sacrifice their deep interests in, say, history, psychology, or public policy—“all in order to fix, sell, or distribute widgets” or “to spend the best years of [their lives] planning air conditioning ductwork for luxury condos.” Men also work longer hours and are more willing than women to take dangerous but well-paid jobs as truck drivers, loggers, coal miners, or oil riggers. (My American Enterprise Institute colleague Mark Perry has suggested we designate October 11, 2020, Equal Occupational Fatality Day. That is how far into the future women will have to work to experience the same number of work-related deaths that men experienced in 2008 alone. )

Psychologist Susan Pinker has aptly noted that men are more likely than women to give priority to salary and promotions over personal fulfillment.

And of course women are much more involved with babies than men. According to a 2009 Pew survey, “A strong majority of all working mothers (62%) say they would prefer to work part time . . . An overwhelming majority [of working fathers] (79%) say they prefer full-time work. Only one-in-five say they would choose part-time work.” To close the wage gap, women’s groups are going to have to find a way to change women’s preferences and life choices—or somehow rule them out of order.

In their defense, feminist groups deny that women’s choices explain the wage gap. “In fact,” says the National Women’s Law Center, “authoritative studies show that even when all relevant career and family attributes are taken into account, there is still a significant, unexplained gap in men’s and women’s earnings.” Not quite. Studies summarized in the CONSAD report show that when the proper controls are in place, the unexplained wage gap is somewhere between 4.8 and 7.1 cents—and no one can say how much of it is discrimination and how much is owed to subtle differences between the sexes that are hard to measure. For the time being, Equal Pay Day should be moved back from April to January.

To close the wage gap, women’s groups are going to have to find a way to change women’s preferences and life choices—or somehow rule them out of order.

Women’s groups do sometimes acknowledge that the pay gap is largely explained by women’s choices, as the AAUW does in its 2007 Behind the Pay Gap. But this admission is qualified; they insist that women’s choices are not really free. “Women’s personal choices are similarly fraught with inequities,” says the AAUW. It speaks of women being “pigeonholed” into “pink-collar“ jobs in health and education. According to NOW, powerful sexist stereotypes “steer” women and men “toward different education, training, and career paths” and family roles.

But are stereotyped choices evidence of discrimination? American women are among the freest, best educated, and most self-determining people in the world. It seems unsisterly for NOW or the AAUW to suggest that they are being hoodwinked into college majors, professions, or part-time work so they can spend more time with their children.

Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and co-author of an “Equal Pay Day Primer,” takes a different approach. She notes that jobs historically held by women—teaching, nursing, childcare—are paid less relative to men’s jobs, even when they require the same skills. She gives the example of zookeepers (traditionally male) and childcare workers (traditionally female) and cites with approval the words of another scholar who asked, “Aren’t our children more valuable to society than zoo animals?” According to Boushey, such pay disparities are the “legacy of past discrimination. “

When the proper controls are in place, the unexplained wage gap is somewhere between 4.8 and 7.1 cents—and no one can say how much of it is discrimination and how much is owed to subtle differences between the sexes that are hard to measure.

Let me say for the record that I also think children are more precious than zoo animals, but I reject Boushey’s point. There are vast numbers of people who know how to take care of children, but very few who are qualified to bathe and feed a giraffe. Why is it wrong for a zookeeper to earn more than a childcare worker when the zookeeper has a more specialized skill set?

There is more at stake here than having to endure another feminist victim-fest on April 20. Groups like NOW, the AAUW, CAP, and the National Women’s Law Center have produced volumes of tendentious research that is taken seriously by journalists and by Congress. The Senate is now holding hearings on the misleadingly named Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill, which has already sailed through the House with bipartisan support, reads as if it were written by AAUW and NOW members during a particularly bitter “Un-happiness Hour.”

Under this convoluted and impenetrably murky law, feminist lawyers will file multi-million dollar class-action lawsuits and innocent employers will settle. Liability will be based on not only intentional discrimination (we already have laws against that) but on the “lingering effects of past discrimination.” What does that mean? Employers have no idea. Universities, for example, typically pay professors in the business school more than those in the school of social work. They cite market forces as the justification. But according to feminist theory, market forces are tainted by past discrimination. Women’s Studies departments will eagerly provide expert witnesses to testify that sexist attitudes led society to place a higher value on male-centered fields like business than female-centered fields like social work. If the Paycheck Fairness Act passes, it will wreak havoc in the American workplace. Employers today are already nervous about making new hires. This legislation will give them added pause.

American women are not being cheated out of a fifth of their salary. They are not being corralled into inferior life choices. But dozens of women’s groups have spent years drawing this misleading picture, and they have won some important converts. Last year, in his “Equal Pay Day Proclamation,” President Obama said that the 22 percent difference in average wages means that “women across America continue to experience discrimination in the form of pay inequity every day.” Memo to the president: Women across America do not believe that, and most will stay far away from the embarrassing grievance festivals planned for today's Equal Pay Day.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Sommers most recently wrote “Baseless Bias and the New Second Sex” for THE AMERICAN. She has also discussed “The UN Women’s Treaty” and decried “Gender Bias Bunk.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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