April 24 2011
Carrie L. Lukas
The U.S. Department of Labor regularly puts out a statistic that compares the average wages of a full-time working man to that of a full-time working woman, and what you'll find is that women regularly earn about 75 cents for every dollar a man earns. People hear that and assume, as many politicians are explicitly suggesting, that the statistic means women are paid less for equal work.
There's this idea out there that this statistic proves that women face systemic discrimination in the workplace, but that's really not what this statistic says at all. I think once people start thinking about it a little bit, they will realize that there are a lot of decisions people make about the jobs they take. It's not all about maximizing income. When you start considering different decisions that men and women make in the workplace, it's not a surprise at all that women, on average, earn less than men. It's not because of discrimination - it's because of the choices women make to take more time out of the workforce, and thus to work less.
The Department of Labor also produces data that shows how people spend their time; it's called the "American Time Use Survey." It shows that just because a group of people are all classified as working full-time doesn't mean they are all working the same amount of time. More specifically, this study shows that men spend about 10 per cent more time in the office, or at work, than women do. It should hardly be a surprise that someone who works 10 per cent more hours makes more money.
Another factor to consider is the different industries that men and women tend to gravitate towards: Men are more likely to drive trucks through the night and work the tough shifts and the tough hours. They are also more likely to take on physically gruelling jobs like sanitation work and guarding prisons. And part of the reason that they take on some of these jobs that have less-than-desirable characteristics is because they get the higher pay.
Furthermore, when men have kids, they often try to earn more money to provide for their families. On the other hand, when women have kids, they tend to take a step back to spend more time with their families.
Overall, even though women are increasingly educated and taking on high-powered careers, women still tend to opt into specialties that end up making less money. Think of the medical profession: Even with all the different types of surgeries that are required nowadays, women tend to gravitate away from some of the specializations that earn the biggest bucks. These are the types of jobs that reward you with the most money, but that require you to get out of bed in the middle of the night, or dedicate an extra couple of years to training. It's understandable that women wouldn't necessarily want to leave their kids at home in the middle of the night so that they could go perform an emergency surgery.
I think it's important to appreciate the widespread issues that statisticians have to consider when filing their reports. They have access to limited information, and sometimes it's really hard to figure out why it is that some individuals make less money than others.
One thing that happens is people negotiate, and weigh their priorities. I always like to use myself as an example: I have a Master's degree, and I've been working pretty much non-stop for the last 15 years. But, almost six years ago, I had a child, and at that point I took a pay cut. I ended up having three kids in the last six years, and, as a result, my wages haven't been going up very much, but I've been trading off flexibility for higher pay, and I feel like that's a great choice for me. There are a lot of women out there who make those choices, because their highest priority isn't making money - they value other things. But it's really hard to capture all that in a statistic.
Most workplaces in the West are at least nearing gender equality. There are certainly going to be bad bosses, and I'm sure some industries are tougher on women, just like I'm sure there are some industries that are tougher on men. It's a not a perfect world, and our society is not always fair, but, for the most part, I think that women have all the opportunities that men have. They may face challenges, but they can get to the top if they want to. I think that's great news. It's worth appreciating all the opportunities we have, when there are women around the world who are still living without the basic rights that we continually take for granted.