Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Wage Gap

I was reading this article about the wage gap today, and was thoroughly unsatisfied by its treatment of the wage gap and the possible causes for it. While it claims to address and refute the reasons pundits often give to "excuse" the wage gap, I found it lacking. It correctly summarized its opposition with the following four points (I found the others to be extraneous and not common in my readings of the literature).

1) Women voluntarily take lower-paying jobs than men.
Women do, in fact, voluntarily take lower-paying jobs than men do. This is usually because those jobs offer benefits other than pay that they find attractive, such as job security, health benefits, part-time status and the freedom to take off time from work to spend with family. Study after study has shown this. The writer does not refute this point, commenting only: "While its true that, say, a registered nurse doesn't make as much as a lawyer, these are all highly professionalized fields. Each requires at least four years of schooling and almost all require some kind of specialized training."

2) Women "take time off" to have children
The quotes here are meant to indicate that women have no choice but to take time off for pregnancy and birth. This is quite true. Maternity laws in this country suck- no argument here!

3) Women don't ask for better pay
Unfortunately, this is true. A lot of wage raises are negotiated by the employee aggressively asking the employer for a pay raise. Women, for whatever social or biological reason, are less inclined to do this than men. They are more easily intimidated by employers and less likely to think that they "deserve" a better pay.

4) Women have family and household responsibilities (and presumably men don't)
The argument here is that women spend time taking care of the family- and employers should expect that and give them time for it. Here, I think the argument is somewhat flawed. No logical employer is going to pay someone who works less time as much as someone who works more time, regardless of gender. As long as some employees are willing to work 9-5 every day and overtime on some days and some weekends, that's what the employers are going to want and that's what they're going to reward and encourage. Unfortunately, women are the ones hurt hardest by this, because women are more likely to take time off work to take care of children and sick relatives, more likely to use up their sick days, and less likely to work overtime than men are.

The questions we should be asking in response to this situation are "Why is the workplace set up the way that it is?" and "How can we encourage them to become more androgynous?" rather than "How can we force employers to meet the unique needs of female employees?" As we all know, the workplace evolved as a space for men only- male workers who were sole breadwinners within particular social roles. As a result, the current model for companies is set up to maximize productivity from people who are sole breadwinners and not caretakers. If we remove this assumption, the rest follows easily.

In answer to the first objection, the draws for women to lower-paying jobs appear to be health care, freedom to take time off and part-time status. Frankly, these are all good reasons to pay an employee less. The more health benefits, the less money the company actually has for salaries; the more time the employee is free to take off, the less guaranteed productivity the employer has; and having a larger sheer number of part-time employees who all have benefits is more costly to employers than employing a smaller number of full-time workers. However, the benefits for the workers are obviously enormous. Health care is expensive, and the extra time afforded by not working can allow the employee to either hold another job or spend priceless time with the family. These are non-monetary trade-offs that the current system for determining the wage gap does not take into consideration, and which I believe it should.

The second objection points to a more obvious problem. In a lot of careers, taking any time off at all means that you literally lose market value as an employee. Parents of both sexes should be allowed to take time off for childbirth and early childhood development. Other countries have already recognized the rights of parents to a family. Giving a month or less to pregnant women treats children as a sort of tumor to be removed before the employee can get on with her job. If the workforce is actually going to try to integrate caretakers, employers will have to assume that parents of both sexes will want to take time off to care for the child during its first formative months, and will have to accord them this time.

Unfortunately, the third objection is a good one. The system of negotiation for better pay is one that was evolved during the workforce's all-male history. Competition and fights for dominance simply come more naturally to a majority of men than women, for whatever social or biological reasons. And unfortunately, there really is no reason why negotiating for better pay should result in a wage increase. Enforcing employer-decided pay is the only solution that I can think of to this problem.

The fourth objection rests on society at large to change, not on the workplace. So long as there are employees of whatever gender who are willing to work more hours, employers will try to push employees towards that ideal. If women are to gain ground in this arena, society has to change to allow men to take on caretaker roles without derision. Stay-at-home dads are objects of ridicule. If feminists is to help women in this arena, they've got to widen their vision and stop focusing on women. Or a different take, if you don't like that one: Single mothers are significantly more common than single fathers, and do in fact have more family and household responsibilities than other male employees who either do not have families or are not the sole parent. While it is unfair to employers to force them to pay these mothers the same amount that they would employees who do not have these large family time requirements, the government is perfectly capable of providing tax breaks for the number of dependents and the lack of a spouse- which, if I'm not mistaken, it does. I would personally be curious to see how the increase in non-taxable wages as opposed to taxable wages changes the wage gap between single mothers and the average male employee, but I don't know of any studies that have addressed this. A change in government policy could easily help here, in any case.

These reasons for the wage gap are explanations, not excuses. My main fault with this article was that it assumed the former meant the latter. Explaining the mechanism does not excuse the result, but it does allow us and policymakers to examine the system more closely, determine whether policies need to be changed, and if so which ones. Most of the wage gap can actually be explained by these four points- the real question is, how can we change policy to alter families' situations that led to those four points?

1 comment:

  1. if women are systematically paid less than men, i.e. if there really is a wage gap due to discrimination, shouldn't there be lots more hiring discrimation against MEN (than there already is?*) I mean, if I was an employer I could hire all women and save big bucks.

    *studies have shown that women doing hiring are four times as likely as men to hire same-sex. In fact men show no preference in their hiring. This is true across all job fields, even those such as IT and accounting which the vast majority of workers are male.[ref: Moxon]