by Elizabeth S. Bernstein
To follow the popular discourse about the gender wage gap in the United States is to confront perpetual confusion. It is a confusion created at least in part by pronouncements of the type many of us have heard: “Women are paid only 82 cents for every dollar men earn! It is high time for women to earn equal pay for equal work!” Two sentences, each true standing alone, but in juxtaposition creating the impression that the 82-cent figure was derived by comparing men and women in similar jobs.
The commonly used statistic does not however represent any comparison of men and women doing equal work. It is simply a comparison of the median wages earned by each gender in the whole assortment of jobs they hold. Though the calculation is typically limited to full-time workers, defined as those working at least 35 hours per week, men and women do not work the same number of hours. There are more women than men working between 35 and 39 hours, more men than women working over 40. On any of a number of measures – the dangers inherent in their work, the amount of travel required – the jobs worked by men and women are not the same.
This is not to say that outright wage discrimination doesn’t exist. To tease out that part of the gap, economists control for an assortment of measurable differences between men’s and women’s employment situations. Some portion of the “unexplained” gap that remains is assumed to reflect discrimination. In 2016, Glassdoor compared the earnings of men and women who were not only of similar age, education, and years of experience, but who also worked for the same employer, in the same location, with the same job title. (They did not, however, control for number of hours worked.) The resultant gap was 5.4%. In 2019, Payscale compared the median salaries of men and women with the same jobs and qualifications, and found the gap to be 2%.
Whether that “controlled” gap is two cents or five, whatever part of it is due to gender discrimination is wrong, and illegal. The good news is that that portion of the gap has decreased steadily over the decades. The women who have fought to accomplish that deserve great credit.
The remainder of the gap, however – the “explained” portion — hangs on, barely seeming to diminish any longer from year to year. That’s the part that reflects not that women are paid less than men for the same job, but rather that men in the aggregate and women in the aggregate have different lifetime career trajectories. Yet even among analysts who recognize that that portion of the gap represents something other than wage discrimination, many roll right on into the assumption that it is equally unacceptable and must also be eliminated.
I have a different view, one informed by my understanding that I have been a contributor to gender wage disparities. Before my husband and I had children, we both practiced law and made comparable salaries. Afterwards, I stayed home with our children and later returned to work as a math teacher. I wasn’t being discriminated against by my employer – the school district paid me on the same basis as my male colleagues, even crediting me for my law degree. But I no longer made as much as my husband did. His salary and mine had different influence in the statistical buckets for our respective genders.
Plainly I have not followed a career path which would maximize my lifetime earnings. And in that respect I have plenty of company among women. When men and women look for employment, there is a sense in which both are looking for the same things – a fair salary, meaningful work – but another sense in which they are not looking for those things in equal measure. Studies and surveys consistently show that women and men bring different priorities to bear in their career decisions. In addition to valuing monetary rewards more than women do, men are also more interested in leadership and autonomy. Women place more value than men on working with and helping people, on feelings of accomplishment, and on opportunities for growth and development. By a substantial margin, more women than men say that it is “very important” or “extremely important” to have a job that helps society. They express less interest than men in employment which requires ethical compromises for the sake of monetary gains. Men say that the number one thing they could not sacrifice in their job search is salary; women say it’s work/life balance.
There are mentions throughout this piece, from the title on down, of things that men and women value, or things that men and women do. These are of course generalizations. A woman whose goal is to rise through the corporate ranks, or a man who prioritizes helping other people over income – neither of these should be seen as out of line with values that somehow “belong” to their gender. But the wage gap too is a generalization. It reflects only what women do and what men do in the aggregate. And to the extent that there are statistical differences between what men and women value, to the extent that even a subset of women follow career paths different from the typical male, those differences show in that single wage number which is eventually attributed to each gender. In short, without attributing uniformity to either men or women, it is legitimate to view aggregate wage differences in light of aggregate preferences and behaviors.
And the differences in men’s and women’s employment do align to a large extent with their differing preferences. Women are more likely than men to work for non-profits or in the public sector – good places for helping society, but not as attractive to those motivated by the higher-end salaries of profit-making entities. Women are less likely to work the extreme hours sometimes put in by men, particularly those men at high income levels where the wage gap is especially pronounced. (The gap is at its highest percentage in occupations where men’s median pay is over $100,000; it is relatively small among lower-income workers and those whose highest degree is a bachelor’s or lower.) Women more than men report that their jobs “very much” make the world a better place. And when the woman who values her job for precisely that reason could have earned more doing something else, does she reproach herself for possibly contributing to the wage gap? I suspect that in many cases it doesn’t even occur to her; that so long as she is being paid fairly in comparison to her male coworkers, it doesn’t cross her mind that having passed up a more lucrative career has anything to do with the gap at all.
It took a fairly particular circumstance for one woman, a journalist working for National Public Radio, to realize how she fit into statistics about women’s lower lifetime earnings – the circumstance being that she was reporting on it. Interviewing economist Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University, reporter Lisa Chow realized that he “was basically talking about me. I majored in applied math. I have an MBA. And I’m working as a reporter at NPR.” Carnevale’s response? Compared to what Chow could have earned in a managerial job, “You left a lot of money on the table. You left probably as much as three to four million dollars on the table.”
After that, Chow said, she started to see “versions of myself all around me.” An acquaintance with a degree in consulting who had started her career in the corporate world declined her boss’s offer to groom her to become a director. Telling him she was more focused on family, she eventually left corporate employment to become a college career counselor.
Given the statistics, I can say without fear of contradiction that these stories are not foreign to any of us; that almost all of us know women who at some point have left one career path or employer for another that suits them better for any of a number of reasons – despite knowing that over time they are likely to earn less. It may be a job which is more meaningful to them. It may be a job which requires less overtime or overnight travel, which is closer to home or provides a more flexible or predictable schedule. Or it may be that a woman cuts back from full-time to part-time work, or leaves the paid workforce entirely for a time, despite knowing that when she returns she is likely to have less seniority than a man of the same age.
Adjustments of this kind are not something that all women should make, can make, or want to. But the wage gap persists in large part because a great many women do. If one starts from the perspective that the elimination of the gap is of primary importance, then each of these wage-deflating moves is a problem, something that needs to be fixed. From my point of view, however, they don’t represent losses. They represent trade-offs. The women in question have essentially found a way to “purchase” what is most important to them by not letting salary be the only determinant of their careers. Yes, they get paid less than men, and yes, they get more of other things, not least among them more availability to other aspects of life. Those are things worth valuing – whether it means a woman has more time “for herself,” or whether it means she is more available to family and the myriad tasks of life outside the workplace.
There is a complicated interaction between the wage gap narrative and the argument for increasing the pay which traditional “women’s work” commands in the labor market. Because if jobs like childcare and food preparation are truly valuable – which they are – then they are valuable when done for pay and also valuable when done at home. But the at-home accomplishments of women often seem to disappear in discussions of the wage gap. The focus is in so tight on money lost that whatever value women create with the time they have “bought” goes essentially unrecognized. The result is at best a mixed message about women’s traditional labor – valuable enough that it ought to be paid more, but not so worthwhile as to outweigh the imperative to maximize one’s income.
Remember Anthony Carnevale, who confirmed for Lisa Chow that she might have given up millions in earnings by becoming a journalist instead of a manager? He also, she says, told her this: Passion for work often trumps money and skills. “You’re doing something that I suspect you need to do.”
Not long after, Carnevale, with co-authors Nicole Smith and Artem Gulish, released a report entitled “Women Can’t Win: Despite Making Educational Gains and Pursuing High Wage Majors, Women Still Earn Less than Men.” As the title indicates, “winning” is defined in strictly monetary terms. Passion goes unmentioned; instead there are “rules of the game” for women, such as “Pick majors that pay well.”
There is a disconnect here, one which infects the entire wage gap discussion. Few people would insist that a given woman prioritize her income over her satisfaction with her job and her life – yet the cumulative effect of all those women not putting money first is greeted with dismay. I do not for a minute reproach Chow for her choice. I don’t regret my choices either. And seeing nothing to deplore in what she, I, or any number of other women have done, I don’t suddenly start deploring our choices when they are aggregated into a variety of statistics.
Indeed, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the discourse over women’s employment is precisely that it so often views as regrettable what women themselves do not regret. When Pew Research surveyed workers who had reduced their hours, took time off, turned down a promotion, or quit their jobs in order to care for family members, it not only confirmed how widespread such moves were among mothers, but also found that by overwhelming margins they reported being glad they had done so.
A memorable example of recasting women’s own assessment of their choices was the influential 2013 piece in the New York Times, the “Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” The article’s subjects were a group of professional women who had left their jobs to be home with children. Though most of them returned to employment afterwards – some of them in work “more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions”—they didn’t earn as much as they did before. The author, Judith Warner, acknowledges what these women told her about the upside of leaving the work force, about “the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms.” But the article begins with one woman’s “bitter” comparison of her current living situation to her old one, and ends with another woman’s losing the new job she got when she returned to the paid workforce. In between, its descriptions of the employment women find when “opting back in” are littered with references to “a step down,” “lesser responsibilities,” “lower job titles,” “scaled-down ambitions.”
Readers by and large understood the article as a warning against stepping away from career. Yet there, down in the sixty-seventh paragraph of her seventy-paragraph article, Warner told us this about the twenty-two women she had interviewed: “Not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting out job – no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working.”
There is a judgment evidenced there – a balancing, a value determination made by the women in question themselves. Their version of their story was not primarily about a loss of earnings and status. Their story was in fact one of net gain. These were educated, accomplished women. Why shouldn’t their judgments have been the ones that counted, the ones that gave the article its tone?
The gender wage gap is a complicated phenomenon, and some of its causes should indeed be deplored and combated. But a narrative which fails to view its different components separately, which confounds all the causes into one set of undesirable things done to women, does not do them a service. Those who have been led into believing that women are paid 18 cents less for the same work labor under an exaggerated impression of the extent to which they can expect to be mistreated by their employers. But even a more sophisticated analysis, which understands that there are multiple factors at work but still insists they must all be eradicated, is treading on dubious ground. As one of the women Warner interviewed observed, now that she was home caring for children, her husband “struggled to assign value.” The challenge is this: how can we talk about women’s employment in ways which assign value as women do – to money, yes, but to other things as well?