The Wall Street Journal has a new report on the gender (or should I say sex-based) wage gap. The report focuses on college graduates early in their careers. Although the report acknowledges that many confounding factors contribute to the difference in average earnings between men and women, the underlying message is that, because the report corrects for two big variables (degree and years after graduation), women are being treated unfairly. 

A few observations and notes about this report:

Mating matters. Motherhood-mindedness among women likely starts early. And conversely, men are likely to start thinking about being breadwinners for a family even before they have one. This WSJ study seems to put the so-called “motherhood penalty” aside because it focuses on women in their early careers. But women are still likely to “mommy track” their careers early by seeking jobs that provide workplace or schedule flexibility. 

And in the dating world, women typically care more about men’s earnings than men care about women’s earnings. Why do you think that is? Young women want to find mates who can provide for them and any future children. And men want to be attractive mates, giving them another incentive to maximize earnings. Tale as old as time. 

Wage gaps are typically bigger, not smaller, for educated women. This report focuses on people with at least a Bachelor’s degree. As a reminder, this is a minority of the country. But it’s also a more privileged group in some ways. People with higher levels of education are more likely to have higher salaries than people in the working class. These higher levels of education and income offer women the luxury of “leaning out” or pursuing a career focused on passion—a luxury that their less educated peers may not have. Lest I wade into the mommy wars, let me clarify that being a stay-at-home or part-time-working mom is not a pure “luxury;” it’s a lot of work! But certainly having the choice to tradeoff some earnings is good (and enviable). Single mothers, for example, rarely have this choice. 

Similarly, Christina Hoff Sommers often highlights an international study that shows that women and men in more prosperous and advanced societies exhibit greater sex differences. The WSJ report’s focus on more highly educated U.S. women may be another manifestation of this. 

It is very difficult, policywise, to address sex-based discrimination, primarily because this practice is already illegal. The WSJ report, like most discussions of the wage gap, acknowledges that some of the wage gap seems to be “unexplained” by confounding variables, and that discrimination may play a role. But readers should know that it is hard for policymakers to do anything more about this issue (for example, putting sharper teeth on discrimination laws, making lawsuits easier to file, making wages more transparent) without creating other unintended consequences for women. 

Specifically, some proposed solutions to “crack down” on the wage gap could backfire on women by making workplaces less flexible. Employers may respond to any requirement or perceived requirement to pay women and men workers the same (despite job differences) by eliminating any job differences—for example, the ability to telecommute or work from home. 

There’s not much to say about the wage gap that hasn’t already been said. It’s real, although often misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented and politically weaponized. Raw wage gaps simply don’t measure “equal pay for equal work,” and they tell us little about fairness. But they do provide interesting insights about the tradeoffs women and men are willing to make, which, on average, are very different.