On The Gender Pay Gap, I’m Not With Her

As a young professional woman myself, lately I’ve grown fatigued by the media’s on-going portrayal of women as victims of circumstance. Media messaging on one topic in particular – the gender pay gap – is especially discouraging because it’s assembled on the basis of flimsy facts. Although it necessitates a voyage outside my traditional topical expertise, setting the record straight seems a sufficiently worthwhile activity as to require it.

Let’s begin with the numbers. Hillary Clinton and others allege that women get paid 76 cents for every dollar a man gets paid – an alarming workplace injustice, if it’s true.

The 76 cent figure is based on a comparison of median domestic wages for men and women. Unfortunately, comparing men’s and women’s wages this way is duplicitous, because men and women make different career choices that impact their wages: 1) men and women work in different industries with varying levels of profitability and 2) men and women on average make different family, career, and lifestyle trade-offs.

For example, BLS statistics show that only 35% of professionals involved in securities, commodities, funds, trusts, and other financial investments and 25% of professionals involved in architecture, engineering, and computer systems design are women. On the other hand, women dominate the field of social assistance, at 85%, and education, with females holding 75% of jobs in elementary and secondary schools.

An August 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research study, Does Rosie Like Riveting? Male and Female Occupational Choices, suggests that industry segregation may not be structural or even coincidental. According to the authors of the study, women may select different jobs than men because they “may care more about job content, and this is a possible factor preventing them from entering some male dominated professions.”

Another uncomfortable truth for the 76-cent crowd: women are considerably more likely to absorb more care-taker responsibilities within their families, and these roles demand associated career trade-offs. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In describes 43% of highly-qualified women with children as leaving their careers or off-ramping for a period of time. And a recent Harvard Business Review report describes women as being more likely than men to make decisions “to accommodate family responsibilities, such as limiting (work-related) travel, choosing a more flexible job, slowing down the pace of one’s career, making a lateral move, leaving a job, or declining to work toward a promotion.”

It’s fair to assume that such interruptions impact long-term wages substantially. In fact, when researchers try to control for these differences, the wage gap virtually disappears. A recent Glassdoor study that made an honest attempt to get beyond the superficial numbers showed that after controlling for age, education, years of experience, job title, employer, and location, the gender pay gap fell from nearly twenty-five cents on the dollar to around five cents on the dollar. In other words, women are making 95 cents for every dollar men are making, once you compare men and women with similar educational, experiential, and professional characteristics.

It’s worth noting that the Glassdoor study could only control for obvious differences between professional men and women. It’s likely that other, more nuanced but documented differences, like spending fewer hours on paid work per week would explain some of the remaining five percent pay differential.

Now, don’t misunderstand. Certainly somewhere a degenerate, sexist, hiring manager exists. Someone who thinks to himself: you’re a woman, so you deserve a pay cut. But rather than that being the rule, this seems to be an exception. In fact, the data seems to indicate that the decisions that impact wages are more likely due to cultural and societal expectations. A recent study shows that a full two-thirds of Harvard-educated Millennial generation men expect their partners to handle the majority of child-care. It’s possible that women would make different, more lucrative career decisions given different social or cultural expectations.

Or maybe they wouldn’t. But in the meantime, Hillary’s “equal pay for equal work” rallying cry is irresponsible, in that it perpetuates a workplace myth: by painting women as victims of workplace discrimination, when they’re not, it holds my sex psychologically hostage by stripping us of the very confidence we need to succeed. It also unhelpfully directs our focus away from dealing with the real barrier to long-term earning power – social and cultural pressures – in favor of an office witch hunt.

And that’s why, on the gender pay gap, I’m not with her.