Wednesday, April 13, 2011

If There Were a Wage Gap, Women Would Want it to be Larger?

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by Carrie Lukas, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, an organization seemingly devoted to finding women who are willing to advance anti-feminist viewpoints. There's nothing wrong with that, of itself, as women are entitled to hold a range of views and public debate can help clarify the facts and issues. But if this editorial is reflective of the quality of the organization's advocacy, it seems fair to state that they're not really interested in improving the public debate or understanding of the issues.

The article does include the following, valid point:
Choice of occupation also plays an important role in earnings.
Historically there was a lot of argument about "equal pay for work of equal value," in which two disparate occupations would be declared "equal" and with the women's occupation being noted to offer lower wages. It's classic "apples and oranges", with those on one side of the debate insisting that two jobs had "equal value" and the other arguing that the two jobs are nothing alike. It's not that there isn't a basis for the argument that certain jobs traditionally open to women were undervalued, but you quickly lose your audience when you start making purely subjective parallels between wholly unrelated occupations.

But that's about as charitable as I can be to Ms. Lukas. Her arguments are largely unsupported, illogical, and unrelated to her thesis. "The unemployment rate is consistently higher among men than among women." Well, yes, but the point of discussion is the "Male-Female Wage Gap", and to the extent that the unemployment rate is relevant to the wage gap it's in the opposite direction to what Ms. Lukas would have us infer. If we are to assume that men are drawn to one set of jobs and women are drawn to another, and the reason for men's higher rate of unemployment is that traditional male jobs are comparatively scarce and that they're not qualified for or not interested in applying for "women's work", you would expect that wages for male occupations would drop in the face of an oversupply of workers and that wages for women would rise in the face of relative scarcity. So why isn't that happening?

And about those work choices:
Men have been hit harder by this recession because they tend to work in fields like construction, manufacturing and trucking, which are disproportionately affected by bad economic conditions. Women cluster in more insulated occupations, such as teaching, health care and service industries.
Men "tend" to work in vocations that require little to no formal education and involve various forms of physical labor? In May, 2009, 0.70 percent of private sector employment was in the construction industries. 1.4% was in truck driving. 1.91% was for laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, .95% for maintenance and repair workers, .92 percent for team assemblers.... So this tendency among men is reflected in about 6% of private sector employment? And women... cluster? What an interesting choice of words.

When medical schools were overwhelmingly male-dominated, were men "clustering" in the health care industry, or would such a term be used only in relation to female-dominated nursing schools? Now that more than half of medical school students are women, with men who might otherwise have attended presumably ripping off their shirts and going to truck driving school, we can expand the term "cluster" across the entire health care industry? Does the same apply to law firms, with law practice having once been almost exclusively a male profession but with women now comprising more than half of enrolled law students? Again, if women are "clustering" in fields that require more education and that have lower rates of unemployment, some of which are quite well-paid and most of which are far more resistant to economic downturn than the @6% of jobs to which male workers "tend" to apply, why wouldn't we expect women to out-earn men by a substantial margin?

It would seem obvious that if you are going to take the reasonable position that you can't compare apples and oranges, that it is arbitrary to say "nursing home attendants are equal in value to society to hardscape installers, and thus should earn the same rate of pay," you should be able to understand the implication of your position - that to support your argument on this issue you should be looking at wage differentials within occupations, or between very similar occupations. Lukas wants it both ways - she wants to be able to talk about women voluntarily choosing to "cluster" in lower-paying fields while eschewing the "manly man" fields that attract men, so that there should be no surprise that women earn less. Except she constructs an argument that instead suggests that women should be earning more.

Then there's the reality of what men do. Lukas suggests that "Women gravitate toward jobs with fewer risks, more comfortable conditions, regular hours, more personal fulfillment and greater flexibility." Well, so are men, including those who start out performing manual labor but reach an age when their bodies can't keep up. Lukas suggests,
Men, by contrast, often take on jobs that involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions (which is also why men suffer the overwhelming majority of injuries and deaths at the workplace). They put up with these unpleasant factors so that they can earn more.
As a lawyer, I have had many discussions over the years with other lawyers and law students, often touching on the nature of work and compensation. Within the professional classes you will find no shortage of men who make lots of money but have never held a job that involves demanding physical labor. Sometimes you'll hear a comment from one who has, that "When you say you worked hard today, you have no idea what that means - you barely even got out of your chair." That's not to say that the speaker is inclined to quit legal practice and drive a long-haul truck - contrary to what Lukas suggests, cutting your pay by 2/3 or more in order to work long hours and be away from your family for days or weeks at a time isn't particularly attractive to your average man. Travel may be required, but if you take a look at the higher earning classes you'll discover that their on-the-job travel involves a much different level of comfort than the sleeper cab. It is to say that men and women who have worked physical labor and have found much greater financial reward and stability tend to have moved into the white collar fields and, as much as they appreciate what a hard day's work truly can entail, aren't inclined to go back to the literal trenches.

If you wanted to make a generalization based upon traditional employment, looking at outcome and not opportunity, you might conclude on that partial information "Women tend to work in jobs where they get to be around other women, and where they will have time to take care of their households, husbands and children, even though it means they earn less. Men work with men, and are driven to earn more money and work longer hours." It wouldn't be a particularly meaningful observation, but you can see how an alien visiting our planet might deem it reasonable. But even that alien, I think, would have difficulty with Lukas's willingness to overgeneralize in relation to the types of employment that attract men or women, and to completely ignore how those occupations and the qualifications for those occupations have shifted over time. For example, Lukas argues,
The Department of Labor's Time Use survey shows that full-time working women spend an average of 8.01 hours per day on the job, compared to 8.75 hours for full-time working men. One would expect that someone who works 9% more would also earn more. This one fact alone accounts for more than a third of the wage gap.
The alien might respond, "But you told us that choice of occupation plays an important role in earnings, and now you're completely ignoring both choice of occupation and wages paid. He works 8.75 hours per day as a long-haul trucker, earning $150, she works 8.01 hours per day in a 'health care cluster' as a nurse anesthesiologist, earning $350 - how does that explain anything about a wage gap?"
Given that women are outpacing men in educational attainment, and that our economy is increasingly geared toward knowledge-based jobs, it makes sense that women's earnings are going up compared to men's.
True, but then why did Lukas spend so much time talking about how men earn more money because they "tend" to work in jobs that don't require educational attainment and are not knowledge-based, or involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions, if the path to a stable, well-paying job is in fact to obtain a college education and to work in a knowledge-based occupation or profession?

And now for the crocodile tears:
Should we celebrate the closing of the wage gap? Certainly it's good news that women are increasingly productive workers, but women whose husbands and sons are out of work or under-employed are likely to have a different perspective. After all, many American women wish they could work less, and that they weren't the primary earners for their families.
What woman, after all, wouldn't happily surrender part of her wages or her job stability in order that her husband could once again out-earn her, or that her (adult?) son could support his family with a manly man's vocational job instead of having to go to college. It may be anecdotal, but look at the compelling arguments to that effect from the many women Lukas quotes... Oh, I guess she didn't have room to support that claim with any evidence whatsoever. A hollow man. On the whole, though, that's in keeping with an editorial that supposedly debunks a wage gap but gets confused coming out of the starting blocks over how you would even define such a gap, and argues both that it doesn't exist and that it results from women's occupational choices. Every which way but loose.
Few Americans see the economy as a battle between the sexes. They want opportunity to abound so that men and women can find satisfying work situations that meet their unique needs.
Why am I thinking at this point, "The few, the proud, the Independent Women's Forum".

(Incidentally, where was the argument that women earn less than men because they take time off for birthin' their babies?)


  1. IWF is an organization for the type of misogynist female who really wants to be an "honorary guy".

    You're being a little unfair about 'equal pay for equal work'. That was less about wholly disparate occupations, and more about recognizing that occupations were treated as 'disparate' primarily because of the gender of people doing them. You probably remember the exemplar case of a hotel which paid maids less than janitors, even though their duties were virtually identical (the only difference was that 'must lift 50 pounds' was an official part of the janitor job description, but maids actually had to do as much lifting as janitors); but most maids were female and most janitors were male.

    The 'choices' argument also of necessity ignores the reason for those choices. If you have to work twice as hard to be thought half as good, why bother?

  2. That's less a case of "equal pay for work of equal value" than it is of "equal pay for equal work". (Which is, in essence, your point.)

    You're correct - I don't want to be unfair to the concept and, when applied as you describe, it's legitimate.