Feminists claim that one example of sexism in society is the fact that women get paid less than men. Conservatives counter by claiming that this difference is not due to sexism but to actual differences between men and women. They claim that men are better educated, have more experience and specialise in better paying (often more dangerous jobs). So which is it? Is the gender pay gap an example of sexism in society or is it just a myth that denies genuine differences in work done?
First of all, both sides agree that the average woman is paid significantly less than the average man. In Ireland this gap is 14% and 15% in the UK, 16% across the EU and 23% in the US. So neither side disputes that on average women are paid less than men, the dispute is over why this is the case. The gap is much higher for richer people, part time people and those in the private sector.
Conservative argue that it is differences in work done not differences in gender that explains the pay gap. They argue that women have less experience, work less hours and are concentrated in lower paying industries and occupation. Women are concentrated in clerical and social occupations which pay less. They also take more time out to raise their children and generally place a higher value on family life than their career. Their skills may “rust” during this time out and women may be reluctant to invest as much in human capital if they know they won’t be working as much. In contrast men work continuously through their career and for this reason are paid more. Thus the pay gap is due to choices that women make rather than discrimination.
So what does the evidence say? A study on the Irish pay gap conducted in 2009 and using 2003 data found that women were paid 22% less than men. By far the largest explanatory factor was that men had more experience, however, this could only explain why women were paid 3% less. Other factors included the likelihood of being in a supervisory position or member of a trade union. The gap due to differences in employment sector was smaller than would be supposed, responsible for only 3% of a pay gap. While women were found to be heavily concentrated in clerical and sales occupations, these are as skilled as male dominated plant and craft occupations. However, 8% of the pay gap (one third of the total difference) could not be explained, suggesting this was the amount of discrimination. It was also noted that the pay gap for part time women actually increased once characteristics were taken into account, implying they should have been paid more than men instead of 10% less.
This result is standard internationally too. Most studies find that human capital reasons explain little of the difference and that even taking differences in industry and occupation into account a large residual remains unexplained. This may be things that economists cannot measure or it could be discrimination. Other studies have found that even a year after leaving college women are already paid much less than men. As this is too soon for a difference in experience to emerge or for time to be lost due to children, this suggests it could be due to discrimination. The widespread nature of the pay gap also suggests discrimination. Women get paid less regardless of their level of education, their industry, occupation or even if they reach the level of CEO.
Differences in industry cannot explain the pay gap as women are paid less in almost every industry and occupation, including the male dominated ones. Studies also find that women are less likely to be hired, even for low level jobs. A study in Philadelphia used identical resumes to apply for waiter and waitress jobs but only changed the gender. It was found that women got only half as many job offers as the male candidates. Once hired, women are less likely to be promoted or reach high ranking positions. It was found that only 3-5% of senior managers in Fortune 1000 companies were women.
The thing about sexism is that it is everywhere and it has incredibly deep roots. It is rarely blatant and open but has a strong subliminal influence on men and women. What if the industry and occupation women end up in is subject to discrimination too? What if the reason there are so few female engineers isn’t because women choose to avoid such a well paid career, sexist influences mean women are made to feel they don’t belong on an engineering course? I have friends studying engineering and one thing they frequently comment on is how male dominated their course is and how isolated the women are. Likewise I knew a guy who studied nursing and everyone thought was “weird” for doing so. What if sexism is pushing women into low paid “feminine” jobs? What if women don’t choose low paid roles, but rather the jobs that women choose get low pay because women do them. No woman is an island and we are all influenced by the culture we live in.
The economic controls that economists add may end up covering up discrimination. What if our culture makes women seem unsuited to senior management roles? That would be discrimination, but hard to measure. Sexist hiring and promotion practices would not be picked up on in an econometric test. What about a situation where all the women were low paid nurses and all the men were high paid doctors? Would that be discrimination? Not if women can freely become doctors, but if there is a culture that frowns upon female doctors, then is that not a form of discrimination? Sexism is more likely to strike silently with a knife than to go about with all guns blazing. The barriers to success in life are rarely large and obvious, but it is far more likely to be the subtle invisible ones that hold us back.
Women lose out in their careers from having to take time out to raise their children, but is this a choice? If it is just expected that a good mother will sacrifice her career for her children while the father keeps working, is that really equality? It isn’t just through free choice that the vast majority of children are raised because their mothers took time off from work, but also through societal norms and cultures . Imagine if a father dropped out of work to raise a child while the mother kept working. The mother would have to deal with the accusation of being cold and uncaring (some of the worst insults to a woman) of her child while the husband would have to deal with the notion that he is weak (one of the worst insults to a man). The rarity of these reversed gender roles suggests its not an entirely free choice.
The gender gap is not as wide as the raw data suggests but it is still real and it is still significant. Women are paid roughly 10% less than men for reasons that cannot be adequately explained. This is highly likely to be due to discrimination and is probably an understatement as even the choices women make over which job and industries to work in are subject to social norms that discourage some occupations as not somewhere women belong. Sexism and gender divides are not just something that exist in history books or battles that our parents fought, but still a real and persistent problem. Equal pay for equal work still isn’t a reality.