Political experts have just begun to analyze why Sen. Hillary Clinton, considered a shoo-in for her party’s nomination just a few months ago, lags behind Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries. Surely one factor has been that compared with the fresh-faced Illinois senator, Clinton seems like an anachronism. She may as well be wearing horn-rimmed glasses and bell bottoms as she attempts to rally the sisterhood to join her in the cause of electing the first female president.
The problem for Clinton is that most women today don’t think in terms of gender solidarity. Women take for granted our access to education and job opportunities. The steady march of women into positions of political power reassures most that, regardless of the fate of her candidacy, it’s only a matter of time before we have a woman in the Oval Office.
Other dealers in gender grievance face a similar challenge. Tuesday, April 22, has been labeled “Equal Pay Day” by old-school feminist groups: By their logic, it’s the day that women finally get to stop working to make up for last year’s pay discrimination. They will issue news releases containing the same statements about the need for more government oversight to end this unfairness.
Yet few people actually believe this rhetoric. The statistic that women make about 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man has been ingrained into public consciousness, but most people intuitively understand discrimination isn’t solely to blame; something else is going on.
And in fact, studies of pay differentials reveal that it’s not discrimination, but the choices men and women make, that are the primary cause of the wage gap. The wage gap statistic comes from the Department of Labor’s comparison of the median income of a full-time working woman with that of a full-time working man, and it regularly shows that women make about 80 percent of what men make. But this statistic fails to take into account critical factors, such as occupation, number of years and hours worked, and education.
For example, in addition to taking more time out of the labor force, full-time working women spend less time at their jobs than their male counterparts. According to the Department of Labor, women spend .7 hours a day less in the office than men do. Should it be a surprise that an extra 3.5 hours a week at work result in higher pay?
Even a study done by Equal Pay Day sponsors like the American Association of University Women found that three-quarters of the pay gap disappears by controlling for hours, occupation and other factors that affect earnings.
Might discrimination account for some of the remaining gap? Absolutely, but other explanations are also worth considering. For example, research conducted by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University found that women are less likely than men to negotiate their starting salary and to ask for raises. The differences that result are significant over a worker’s lifetime and would clearly affect statistics like the wage gap.
It helps women to hear that fact and to appreciate the importance of negotiating salary. As a result, we can push ourselves to be our own advocate and take care to teach our daughters to be comfortable talking about money and valuing their time.
If feminism’s goal remains to empower women, then events like Equal Pay Day, which rest on inflated statistics about the extent of sex discrimination, are counterproductive. Far from empowering, convincing women we are victims disguises the real choices we face and the power we have. Armed with knowledge about how decisions about our work life affect our lifetime earnings, women still may opt for careers that provide greater flexibility and personal satisfaction over money, but we will feel better knowing that it was our choice, not a conspiracy against us.
Thankfully, most American women are too busy living their lives to worry about fighting the gender wars of the past. That may not be welcome news to Hillary Clinton, but it should be to the rest of us.