Why are politicians again championing the Equal Rights Amendment — newly minted as the Women’s Equality Amendment — when the speaker of the House, secretary of state and the Democratic presidential front-runner are women, and when women are making gains in education and the workforce? One reason is that many claim women are systematically discriminated against at work, as the existence of the so-called wage gap proves.
Talking about wage discrimination against women is a political mainstay. Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed consternation that women continue to make “just 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes” and reintroduced legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, that would give the government more power to make “an equal paycheck for equal work” a reality.
This statistic — probably the most frequently cited of the Labor Department’s data — is also its most misused.
Yes, the Labor Department regularly issues new data comparing the median wage of women who work full time with the median wage of men who work full time, and women’s earnings bob at around three-quarters those of men. But this statistic says little about women’s compensation and the influence of discrimination on men’s and women’s earnings. All the relevant factors that affect pay — occupation, experience, seniority, education and hours worked — are ignored. This sound-bite statistic fails to take into account the different roles that work tends to play in men’s and women’s lives.
In truth, I’m the cause of the wage gap — I and hundreds of thousands of women like me. I have a good education and have worked full time for 10 years. Yet throughout my career, I’ve made things other than money a priority. I chose to work in the nonprofit world because I find it fulfilling. I sought out a specialty and employer that seemed best suited to balancing my work and family life. When I had my daughter, I took time off and then opted to stay home full time and telecommute. I’m not making as much money as I could, but I’m compensated by having the best working arrangement I could hope for.
Women make similar trade-offs all the time. Surveys have shown for years that women tend to place a higher priority on flexibility and personal fulfillment than do men, who focus more on pay. Women tend to avoid jobs that require travel or relocation, and they take more time off and spend fewer hours in the office than men do. Men disproportionately take on the dirtiest, most dangerous and depressing jobs.
When these kinds of differences are taken into account and the comparison is truly between men and women in equivalent roles, the wage gap shrinks. In his book “Why Men Earn More,” Warren Farrell — a former board member of the National Organization for Women in New York — identifies more than three dozen professions in which women out-earn men (including engineering management, aerospace engineering, radiation therapy and speech-language pathology). Farrell seeks to empower women with this information. Discrimination certainly plays a role in some workplaces, but individual preferences are the real root of the wage gap.
When women realize that it isn’t systemic bias but the choices they make that determine their earnings, they can make better-informed decisions. Many women may not want to follow the path toward higher pay — which often requires more time on the road, more hours in the office or less comfortable and less interesting work — but they’re better off not feeling like victims.
Government attempts to “solve” the problem of the wage gap may in fact exacerbate some of the challenges women face, particularly in balancing work and family. Clinton’s legislation would give Washington bureaucrats more power to oversee how wages are determined, which might prompt businesses to make employment options more rigid. Flexible job structures such as the one I enjoy today would probably become scarcer. Why would companies offer employees a variety of work situations and compensation packages if doing so puts them at risk of being sued?
Women hearing Clinton’s pledge to solve their problems and increase their pay should think hard about the choices they have made. They should think about the women they know and about their career paths. I bet they’ll find that maximizing pay hasn’t always been the top priority. Eliminating the wage gap may sound like a good campaign promise, but since the wage gap mostly reflects individual differences in priorities, it’s a promise that we should hope a President Hillary Clinton wouldn’t try to keep.
Carrie Lukas is vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.”
This article was first published in The Washington Post.