by Thomas Rodham Wells
You may have heard of the gender income gap. It is one of the most obvious signs that despite being equal in theory, women still lack real equality. Some of it is still due to active discrimination by people who still haven't got the equal treatment message. But much more of it is the result of a history of unjust gender norms and factual errors inscribed into our institutions, most notably the bundle of moral expectations we hold about what can be demanded of women rather than men in terms of unpaid care of children, the disabled and the elderly.
The problem is that fairness – the principle of the equal treatment of equals – is a poor guide to action here. Our history has bequeathed us a gender injustice complex of interlocking and mutually reinforcing institutional arrangements and moral values that altogether make women less economically valued than men. The outcome is pretty clear – women tend to earn much less than men – but it is hard to pin down specific violations of fair treatment by specific agents who can be held responsible. Sexist pigs are relatively easy to pick out and chastise, and in some cases may even be successfully prosecuted for discrimination or other misbehaviour. But it's rather harder to condemn a university educated couple for agreeing between themselves to follow the traditional model of male breadwinner and female homemaker. Even if that decision is replicated in household after household leading to dramatic aggregate differences in labour market participation rates for women, especially in full-time professional work.
It is true that a great many policies have been proposed, and sometimes even implemented, to address different pieces of the gender injustice complex, from quotas in boardrooms and the top management of public institutions to compulsory paternity leave. But such reforms struggle politically, not least because they seem to impose more unfairness – the unequal treatment of men and women because of their gender. A good many people, including many women, reasonably object to the incoherence of trying to solve a fairness problem by creating more unfairness. More positive measures, such as providing free child-care from tax revenues, are considered too expensive to fully implement. And for all the political capital these policies require to be put into action, each can only have incremental effects anyway because they only address one piece of the puzzle at a time. They rarely inspire much popular support.
We've been thinking about this the wrong way, distracted by the idea that unfairness must be produced by bad motives that are best addressed by cumulative moral exhortation, or something else equally cheap like training young women to 'lean in'. If we all want gender equality then eventually, surely, it will come about by itself.
This is even evident in the way we conceive of the gender income gap. For instance, most statistics focus on comparing like with like: full-time year round employment wages for similar work, sometimes corrected for educational attainment. Such comparisons of how men and women with the same career preferences fare are a good tool for hunting down certain forms of discrimination in the labour market, such as corporations' hiring and promotion practises. But they certainly do not get at the true character or scale of the gender injustice complex. From a cynical perspective one might also note that this choice of metrics conveniently presents the gap between men and women in the smallest possible way. But why shouldn't the fact that fewer women seek full-time year round employment be included in the analysis? Why assume that gender injustice starts in the labour market? Presumably because of the widely held belief that many women just naturally prefer care work to paid work.
The philosopher Anne Phillips criticises this presumption rather well,
When differences of outcome are explained retrospectivelyby reference to differences in personal preference, this assumes what has to be demonstrated: that individuals really did have equal opportunities to thrive. In many cases, moreover, these explanations reproduce ideologically suspect stereotypes about particular social groups: that ‘women' for example, care more about children than men, or have less of a taste for political power. When outcomes are ‘different' (read unequal), the better explanation is that the opportunities were themselves unequal. (Source)
Rather than obsessing about finding clear evidence of specific discrimination practises or a piecemeal dismantling of the gender injustice complex, we should start from the other end, with the fact of injustice. We should assume that men and women would earn the same amount unless there were structural constraints on women. We should start by repairing the glaring problem of the gender income gap and then worry about addressing its causes.
If you broaden the scope and look directly at how much women earn compared to men by including their much lower participation in full-time year round paid work, the size of the income gap jumps significantly from 10-15% in many rich countries to more like 30%. This is the real income gap.
A reparations programme to repair and compensate for the effects of this injustice against women would work something like this.
Divide the total income gap by two. This is the amount that has gone missing from women's income without a proper explanation let alone justification.
Raise a tax equivalent to that amount from men using a progressively rising special income tax that kicks in above the median income for women (the gender income gap is particularly marked at the top of the income distribution range).
Divide this amount equally by the number of adult women in the country and distribute it via the tax/social security system. Women would receive this reparations payment whether or not they work.
Result: the aggregate pay gap disappears. And without having to laboriously unstitch each individual strand of the gender injustice complex that produces it.
Of course a real reparations programme would need to address complications such as how women's reparations payments would interact with the means-tested social security system, pensions, etc. But its essential simplicity would remain.
Not only would reparations directly address the income gap produced by centuries (millennia?) of institutionalised discrimination. It would also make it easier to unstitch the gender injustice complex itself.
For example, the reparations programme automatically adjusts the economic value of men relative to women. At present women are artificially expensive because the care burden of parenthood tends to fall on them and thus indirectly on companies that take the risk of hiring them (one reason women are over-represented in the public sector). The higher tax on employing men would instantly make them more expensive relative to women, which should counterbalance the motherhood costs/risks that companies face in hiring women that no law or policy has yet managed to completely address. Giving companies good economic reasons to hire more women is rather more likely to work than our earnest moral exhortations have so far.
The reparations programme would also reach into the family, where many decisions about women's careers are made after rational and joint deliberation. It often makes economic sense to have a division of labour within a family, with one spouse specialising in a professional career and the other specialising in caring for children and therefore working fewer hours in a non-career job. As the economist Gary Becker noted 30 years ago, decisions about the sexual division of labour are very sensitive to marginal differences in the perceived productivity of each party in care and market work. If men are perceived as even slightly better at earning money than at caring for children with their time, then they are likely to go out to work while women specialise in child-care. Indeed, this very pattern seems to be replicated in a great many modern families, showing how sensitive individual ‘preferences' can be to structural constraints.
However, the relative comparative advantages of men and women may be flipped by a tax on men's income, leading to the very opposite pattern of sexual division of labour becoming dominant. It may finally become economically rational for men to take up their rights to paternity leave and then become home-makers while women continue with their career-path jobs.
The reparations programme has two additional advantages over other policies that have been proposed or implemented.
First, it is self-eliminating because the problem it seeks to address is also the metric on which it is raised. Thus the unfairness which characterises it – the deliberately unequal treatment of men and women – is easier to justify than say affirmative action policies, which are suspected of creating and entrenching new forms of discrimination.
Second, it should accelerate political progress on unravelling the gender injustice complex because all sides will now readily agree on the importance of reducing the underlying gender income gap. Men would have reasons beyond solidarity to grumble about gender injustice since it shows up in their pay packets too. And political parties would thus have political rather than merely moral incentives to deal with its underlying causes. The long tiresome process of chipping away at the sources of inequality in the workplace and in access to the workplace would finally make political sense, and even expensive policies like free universal child-care might come to seem affordable after all.
A similar reparations programme might also be proposed for ethnic minorities, such as African Americans or indigenous peoples like the Roma, who suffer likewise from an institutionalised history of discrimination that makes claims about their equality of socio-economic opportunities fatuous. In practice however this would likely face much tougher political resistance because racialist stereotypes are more virulent than sexist ones in the politics of supposedly civilised Western countries.