Wage Gap Reflects Women's Priorities

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An
Aug. 26
report from the U.S. Census Bureau stated that the median female
full-time wage for women was 75.5 cents for every dollar similarly
earned by men; that’s down .6 percent from 2002. (See Table
1
.)

Gender
feminists quickly cried “discrimination is increasing!”

Is
that charge true, and how is it being used?

The
Institute for Women’s Policy Research immediately issued a
press release
that used the 75.5 figure to call for a raise
in the minimum wage and improved enforcement of equal-opportunity
laws.

But
there may be no problem to solve.

For
one thing, the .6 percent could be an insignificant statistical
variation, especially given that women’s wages have risen consistently
over the last decade.

For
another, a survey is not a scientific study; it only indicates that
something may deserve more attention. It does not explain why there
is a wage gap.

In
2003, the U.S. General
Accounting Office observed
, “Of the many factors that account
for differences in earnings between men and women, our model indicated
that work patterns are key.

“Specifically,
women have fewer years of work experience, work fewer hours per
year, are less likely to work a full-time schedule, and leave the
labor force for longer periods of time than men.”

The
GAO cautioned that it could not “determine whether this remaining
difference is due to discrimination or other factors.”

For
example, some experts said that some women trade off career advancement
or higher earnings for a job that offers flexibility to manage work
and family responsibilities.

In
short, more women than men may seek out lower-paying jobs with flexible
hours in order to spend time with their families.

If
so, when you take two checklists, one of women’s and one of men’s
full-time jobs, and go to the exact middle of each, the median,
women’s wages will naturally be less than men’s.

But
what about comparable full-time jobs? What could account for a wage
gap there? Consider just two possibilities.

First,
the definition of full-time employment: Most surveys define it as
35-plus or 40 hours a week. But a tremendous difference exists between
an employee who clocks 40 hours and one who works 60.

For
the same reasons women would seek flexible hours, they also are
likely to work fewer hours in a full-time job. Raises, bonuses,
and promotions more naturally flow toward employees who work longer
hours.

Indeed,
when you factor out variables like having children, the wage gap
virtually disappears.

In
their book “Women’s
Figures”
(1999), economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine
Stolba meticulously compared data on the earnings of childless men
and women aged 27 to 33. They found that the wage gap shrank to
98 cents.

A
second possible reason for the “wage gap”: Surveys do not usually
account for factors such as “shift premiums.” That is, shifts that
are dangerous or otherwise undesirable are more highly paid and
more likely to be filled by men.

Working
the day shift as a cab driver is not really equal to working the
more dangerous night shift, but it is usually treated that way by
surveys.

The
resulting disparity in wages has nothing to do with discrimination
against women. It reflects the preferences of women themselves.

If
this is true, then the wage
gap
is not a problem to be solved. It is merely an interesting
statistic indicating that men and women, when offered a level playing
field will tend to express different priorities and, so, end up
at different places. (This is a crude generalization, of course,
and says nothing of individual men and individual women.)

People,
like me, who argue that the wage gap is mostly a reflection of women’s
preferences, are often accused of caring nothing for equality or
justice.

A
more accurate statement is that it is a different vision of equality
and justice. For decades, two
visions
have been competing with each other in the debate surrounding
the wage gap.

The
first view – the one presented here – argues for equality of opportunity.

That
is, every individual’s ability to exercise his or her individual
rights to person and property should be equally protected by law,
with advantages granted to none.

Such
an equality of opportunity would inevitably render unequal results
in wages, for example – because outcomes depend on many other factors,
including ability, hard work, character and luck.

The
inequality of outcomes is not an indication of injustice, because
justice resides in every individual receiving what he or she deserves.
Employees who compete with equality of opportunity deserve whatever
they can negotiate from an employer based on their merits and his
needs. That’s justice.

The
competing vision defines equality as the outcome in which people
are politically, economically and socially equal. Justice is gauged
by how equally all people share in those benefits.

This
view is often called egalitarianism.

Winston
Churchill captured the difference in stating: “‘All men are created
equal’ says the American Declaration of Independence. ‘All men shall
be kept equal’ say the Socialists.”

Nothing
short of totalitarianism can assure the latter.

The
wage gap is, in fact, telling us something that should be heeded
about society and human preference. Egalitarians should listen more
carefully to what is being said.

September
23, 2004

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail] is
the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland,
Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles,
including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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