Updated: Feb 6
Here we are again at another Equal Pay Day and nothing has changed. In fact, we are still processing the depressing news out of the UK last week that their unacceptable gender gap in pay can be explained by the disparity in career progress between men and women.
Spokespeople have actually offered the rank gap as if it were a respectable explanation: “Oh, we do pay women the same as men when they have the same jobs. It’s just that men have the high-paying jobs and women have the low-paying ones.” Such statements are shocking not only for their substance, but because the speakers do not seem to realize they are confessing to deeply rooted bigotry by uttering them.
Who would think that such an argument is a good reason? Only someone who thinks that women somehow deserve to remain at the bottom of the pecking order and pay scale. That their progress is justifiably stalled out. And why would that be true?
Because women are less qualified? Nope. The education of men and women is equal across the entire adult populations of the advanced nations now. That’s because women have been equal to men in college enrollment since the 1970s. Today, women are actually coming into the labor force more qualified than men—by a long shot. More women are educated, to a higher degree, and with better marks, than men. Because women major in the wrong things? Nope. The biggest pay gaps in the UK data last week showed finance to be the worst offender. Females study business in equal numbers to men. Because women are bad at math? No, that is not true. The gap in math ability has long been closed—ever since girls were given equal access to higher math courses in secondary school. Because women have lesser brains than men? No! Stop and think. Would men utter these words about Muslims or blacks? Of course not. Such a statement would be seen as starkly racist. (Well, maybe some of the bigoted bubbas who support Trump would say it, but who wants to be like them?) This business about pink and blue brains is just groundless prejudice. Science does not support these statements.
The explanation that men seem to be comfortable with is: women don’t really want career advancement, they just want babies. This explanation is wrong on so many levels that I can hardly decide where to begin. As an assertion about the inferiority of women, it is right up there with something like “blacks would rather play basketball” or “the Chinese would rather do laundry.” As an expression of human values, it amounts to “women deserve to be punished for wanting to live life and be loved while also working.” We allow men to have both love and work. But not women because they don’t deserve it. And that isn’t bigotry?
Do we need new policies on child care? Yes, we do. But when (and if) we get those changes, they are not going to solve the problem. That’s because children are not the cause of sex discrimination. Children have long since become the means by which men discriminate against women.
Over the past 100 years, women in both the US and the UK have gradually been able to eliminate the legal and cultural barriers that kept women out of the workforce. An astonishing number of constraints were blown down in the 1960s and 1970s by the Second Wave of the women’s movement. After that, the number of women coming into the labor force each year was huge. Economists have now demonstrated conclusively it was the dramatic influx of women into the labor force that produced the economic growth of the past fifty years. (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. That’s just a start.) Then, suddenly, in 2000, the trend went flat. As if it had hit a wall. (Actually, in the US and Sweden, the number has already declined. These had been the two economies where the advances of women had been the strongest. Now dead in the water.) The percentage of women working is still 10%+ less than among men. Age structure does not explain what happened.
At present, the challenge is to figure out what can be done to keep women coming into the work force so that the advanced economies don’t starting running zero or negative growth numbers. The first thing people think is that we need to introduce better maternity leave provisions and start providing child care. Few consider that the investment women have made in their education and careers just isn’t paying off because of the widespread prejudice in the system. (After all, the numbers are down in Sweden and they have family-friendly policies.)
The maternity leave issue is a red herring. Countries who have had this provision have no better, and sometimes worse, numbers than the countries that haven’t had it. That’s because employers in those countries punish females by paying them less, straight out of school, just for having the biological equipment to reproduce.
They also hire women less often for this reason. (My experience is that, in the UK, employers think this is a perfectly reasonable behavior and aren’t even embarrassed to admit they do it. Americans at least know that, like other obscenities, this is not an admission that should be shared in mixed company.)
Not having maternity leave is a big burden. Believe me, I know it. But the fact does remain that American women, who have zero support in this domain, have to stay in the workforce, which most of them do, and, as a result, they advance more than do British women. As a consequence, they are paid more. Nevertheless, in America, the pay gap is biggest at the top, even when the women are there. Do we really think having a few more women at the top will stop the discrimination?
Providing quality childcare—for free or subsidized by the government—is the one measure that has been proven to work. Why don’t governments implement that? Because they are mostly men. They think it is a trivial concern, not worth the investment, and besides that, they are just as keen for all the women to go home as are the business folks.
This desire to send the women packing, in my view, is the true cause for uneven advancement and unequal pay. In the past five years, there has been plenty of research to prove that unequal pay—and jobs—is rooted in the belief, among men, that women should be at home—and not in the workforce competing with them. That’s what I mean when I say that the childcare question is the means, not the reason.
The UK employers are now trying to put us off again. They are all going to start new “women’s career initiatives”! Woo hoo! Seriously, how long have those things been going on? It seems like companies have been doing mentoring programs, leadership training, and so forth for years. These things do not work, probably because they are only a smoke screen, designed to make us think something is being done. And why are all the programs aimed at changing the women? Are women the problem? No, I don’t think they are.
Equality laws and equal education have been in place for fifty years. If these guys meant to actually do anything about the gender gap, it would have happened by now. The most they will admit to is “unconscious bias,” a term I would like to strike out of the English language. This is just a euphemism for blind prejudice. It’s a term that give them a way to say, “Oh well, yes, I discriminated, but I didn’t realize I was doing it! You surely don’t intend to hold me responsible.”
We need stop dancing around, trying not to look behind the screen. The answer to the equal pay problem is not to “fix the women.” It’s to call out the men.