August 16 2012
Carrie L. Lukas
Few topics stir up more heated debate than how women fare in the workforce. Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru recently took on this issue, soberly detailing research that shows discrimination isn't the primary reason why men continue to out-earn women.
As Ponnuru explains, some politicians and activists continue to use the statistic that women earn just 77 per cent of what men earn, implying that this is the gap that exists between your average male and female coworkers. But in fact, once factors such as occupation choice and hours worked are taken into account, just a small fraction of that gap remains.
It's not just conservatives who reach this conclusion: Studies by the American Association of University Women and the General Accounting Office have found the same. Researchers vary on how much of a gap lingers after controlling for men and women's different choices, but there's a near consensus that a large portion of that 77-cents-on-the-dollar gap has nothing to do with workplace discrimination.
As AEI's Christina Hoff Sommers concludes in a forthcoming book, "evidence of systemic gender discrimination by American employers is nowhere to be found."
Yet the bearers of this good news for women -- and it is good news, after all, that women aren't subjected to pervasive workplace discrimination -- are derided as women's enemies. The website Jezebel, for example, sneered that the true message of Ponnuru's column was that women should "shut up" about workplace discrimination and warned readers that they would want to "smack his smug face" after reading his column. Why are cheerleaders for women's equality so disturbed by research revealing that their cause is further along than they thought?
Presumably it's because those advocates want government to do more to help women's cause, and they believe exaggerating the problems women face will encourage action. Feminist groups constantly trumpet the Paycheck Fairness Act, for example, as a "solution" to the wage gap. Yet what this legislation would actual do is just make it easier for workers to sue employers for discrimination that's already illegal.
Some may believe that a bigger legal stick will lead to better worker treatment, but it seems just as likely to backfire on women by making the workforce less flexible, potentially-litigious female employees less attractive hires, and discouraging job creation.
Those who would have Ponnuru and others who question the "77-cents-on-the-dollar" mantra themselves "shut up" should consider what message they send young women entering the workforce. Is it really helpful for young women to assume that their bosses (and keep in mind that a majority of managers in the U.S. today are women) are overwhelmingly sexists? Wouldn't it be better if these young women had a sense of how the choices they make -- the careers they choose, the specialties they enter, and the work-schedules they arrange -- affect their earnings both now and in the future?
Some scholars believe that one driver of the remaining, unexplained wage gap is that women are less likely than men to negotiate their salaries. This deserves a lot more investigation and discussion. After all, that's useful information as I consider my next salary negotiation or a future job offer. As the mother of three girls, I can help make my daughters comfortable with talking about money and remind them of the importance of speaking up for themselves and their worth.
These are conversations that are worth having. And so-called women's advocates aren't living up to their name when they refuse to consider the evidence and move beyond the women-as-victim mantra.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women's Forum.