“Individual Choice,” “Poor Negotiating Skills,” “Clever Entrepreneurs,

Some weeks back, a student sent me a link to a Huffington Post article by Christina Hoff Sommers, asking me what I thought about her argument that the “Graduating to a Pay Gap” report recently released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) proves there is no gender gap in salaries–even though the AAUW says otherwise.

Our class had been working through the history, theory, policy, and statistics surrounding the conflict between child-rearing and work.  Since I had posted several graphs and charts showing the worldwide difference in pay, she was, I am sure, puzzled by Sommers’ aggressive assertions that the wage gap has disappeared and that sex discrimination is a “myth” kept alive by feminists.

I was sorry to see this article because I once admired Sommers for her courage in taking on the moribund women’s studies departments in the US during the 1990s.  Her book, Who Stole Feminism?, was right on target, full of data, and straightforward in tone–very unlike the manner and meaning in this Huffington Post article.  It made me sad to see her wriggling and obfuscating and standing on outdated information, and, in some cases, plainly misrepresenting the findings of the sources she was using.

So, here goes.

First off, one should always be suspicious when a journalist admits that their interpretation of the data is different from the way it was summarized in the press release that accompanied the report.  It is easy to conclude without much thought that the issuer might be engaging in sleight of hand for political reasons.  But that is rarely the case:  a press release is only an announcement and whoever produced the report hopes (and expects ) to answer further questions from journalists who have actually read the report. So, it serves no purpose to blatantly contradict yourself.

Unless, perhaps, you are the tobacco industry or something, right?  But in this case, the authors of the report are the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a highly credible and respected source, full of people who already are the “serious economists” Sommers says the AAUW have now joined. So I thought it was weird that Sommers claims the report shows there is no gender gap, while the press release from the AAUW says quite the opposite. I did what responsible critics do:  I downloaded the report and read it.

The AAUW study shows that young women straight out of school make 82%  of what young men who are otherwise comparable make:  “just one  year out of college, millennial women are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers.  Women are paid less than men even when they do the same work and major in the same field.”  The report shows several possible comparisons, such as hours worked, and the pay gap remains.  The AAUW soberly points out that college girls take out the same huge student loans that boys do, but will have to pay them back with less money.  Sommers brushes the 18% difference aside as miniscule, but actually this is a big gap when all controls have been engaged, the measures are large aggregates (n=15,000 in this case), and the study was done in a place where equal pay for equal work is the law.  Personally, I think it’s shocking, as did the AAUW.

Importantly, other data consistently show the really big effects of gender begin at the moment the women choose to have children.  So, these girls are starting off, at the gate, making 18% less, but this gap will widen, if only from the demands of family.  I say “if only” because there are other influences that depress the wages of women, such as their tendency to forsake out-of-hours client entertaining (we can call this the “lap dance effect”).

Showing no appreciation for the patterns in play, Sommers goes on to quote a 2009 U. S. Labor report that says (surprise!) there is no gender gap except that which can be explained by the effect of children. That report actually argues that the pay gap is “explained” (justified?) by the fact that fewer men take off for childbirth than women. (Really?  I thought men still couldn’t bear children.) Not to mention that women then are more likely to work part-time in order to take care of children than men are.  And that women are drawn to industries with family-friendly policies, which sometimes pay less. And this is not a gender effect?

One must be suspicious of the alternative source chosen, as well.  Sommers claims she chose this U. S. Labor study because it is “one of the best” reports on the topic.  But it isn’t–there are many other, very good reports.  And there are hundreds that have been done since 2009!  The fact that Sommers uses this 2009 report makes me suspect she deems it “one of the best” because it is the only one that endorses her viewpoint, even if in a shamefully blinkered way. (I downloaded this report, too:  it reads like the Tea Party wrote it.)

When childcare is treated as an individual choice that “explains” (and justifies?) the gender pay gap, we should try thinking critically through what this means for the society. The inference would be that if women really want equal pay, they need to make better “individual” choices.  That is to say, they need to stop having children and refuse to provide elder care.  So, while the birth rate drops, we would be looking at all the costs of an aging society, with no one to care for Granny and Gramps except. . . robots?  When you follow through what the social implications would be for a massive shift in individual choices (already underway, with disastrous effects, in many countries), it becomes clear that treating this issue as a strictly personal one is a bit of ideological handicraft that we would all do better to reject as flawed.

Another canard we need to lose is the one that says the gender pay gap can be “explained” (justified?) by the fact that women have poor negotiating skills.  One chapter in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In cuts like a knife to the heart:  this is the one where she reviews all the research about what happens when women negotiate.  Don’t we all know the answer?  As a practical matter, if a woman even tries to negotiate the way a man does, she is likely to lose the opportunity altogether or to prejudice her co-workers against her irreparably. Sandberg cites evidence showing that sometimes a woman can negotiate successfully if she is very careful indeed and frames the request as a communal benefit of some sort. But the net takeaway is that there is really nothing you can do because people simply don’t like women who care about money.  Sandberg concludes that women’s hesitance to negotiate is not a function of poor skills at all–because studies show when women negotiate for others, they consistently outperform men–but results from a very realistic assessment of the risks.

OK and I promise this will be the last rant.  She also claims that there can’t be a wage gap because if it were true that employers could get away with paying women less for the same work, then “clever entrepreneurs” would fire all the men and only hire women because they are cheaper.  Right.  Problem with this is we don’t call those people “clever entrepreneurs.”  We call them “criminals.”

It is against the law in the United States and most countries around the world to pay women less for the same work.  This has been true in the so-called  “advanced nations” for decades.  In the United States, getting caught in a policy of sex discrimination such as Sommers suggests is particularly dangerous because (unlike in the UK) American women have the right to sue as part of a class action.  This can result in settlements so large as to bankrupt a company.

So, nobody is going to blatantly instate a company policy to pay women less.  Indeed, it is precisely because companies are so secretive about this issue that the practice continues. According to recent OECD data, even after you control for all possible barriers, there is still a measurable pay gap, even in the aggregate and even in countries where such practices are illegal.  (The bright pink bars in the graph below are that portion of the wage gap that remains unexplained after OECD statisticians had exhausted all the legitimate variables, such as hours worked.) And that unexplained pay gap gets wider as you near the top of the income scale.  World Economic Forum data show the same pattern.


Source: OECD, Closing the Gender Gap, 2012.


We need to stop letting people justify wage discrimination by arguing that it is “explained” by widespread societal influences that make it impossible to work and have children.  And we need to put a stop to the secretive practices that allow companies to continue to discriminate.  This whole business needs to get out in the open and we need to look honestly and fairly at the mountains of available data that say plainly it’s a problem. Sommers did no one a favor with this irreponsible column.

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