How to Respond When Someone Tells You the Wage Gap Isn’t Real

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts this morning, The Monday Morning Podcast, when host Bill Burr read an email from a seriously misguided listener who was trying to tell him the wage gap wasn’t real.

For his part, Bill said he needed to do more research on the topic before commenting on it. But the thing is the letter-writer needed to do more research too. Well, I am happy to help them along the way.

And since it’s Equal Pay Day, I figured that instead of just writing an email to Bill to forward to that listener, I’d share this info with the class.

First, here’s what the letter writer said:

I want to debunk a myth for you: the wage gap statistic [saying that women get paid 79 cents for every dollar that men make to do the exact same job]. The wage gap statistic you hear about all the time is simply the average earnings of men and women working full time. It does not take into account different job positions, hours worked, or different jobs. It has nothing to do with the same work, it has nothing to do with discrimination. In 1963, the Supreme Court passed the Equal Pay Act which makes it illegal to pay different wages for the same job. If you still don’t buy that, then consider this. If a company could legally pay women less money, do you think those greedy cunts would ever hire a man? Once I pulled this wage gap thread, a whole bunch of other feminist myths started to unravel but I just wanted to shine a light on this topic.

Isn’t it cute when guys discover Reddit’s men’s rights community for the first time and think it makes them gender studies scholars? Awww.

Anyway, I’d like to first congratulate this letter-writer on understanding how averages work. Yes, the wage gap is a comparison of the average earnings of men and women working full time. Everyone knows that already, dude. This is not news to anyone but you.

As a sidenote, something many people don’t know is that when you factor in race, the wage gap gets even bigger. White women are actually the only ones who make 79 cents on the white man’s dollar. Black women make 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and hispanic women make only 54 cents. There’s also a wage gap among different demographics of men — black men make only 75 cents for white men’s dollar. I would love to ask this letter writer what he thinks about that. Is that not caused by discrimination, either?

Anyway, we’re talking broadly about women vs. men here. And as we’ve established, overall, women on average make less money than men. But the letter writer seems to think that since this is based on averages and not a one-for-one comparison of people doing the same exact jobs, it has nothing to do with discrimination at all. And that’s wrong — it’s got a lot to do with discrimination. To be totally accurate, though, it’s more caused by institutionalized sexism.

There are so many different ways in which institutionalized sexism and discrimination affect people’s salaries, but here are three example: men being encouraged to seek higher-paying positions than women from a young age, a lack of resources for working mothers in the U.S., and a lack of respect for what’s considered women’s work.

For example, as Bill Burr said on the air after reading that letter, part of the reason for this difference in pay is that men are more likely to seek better, higher-paying jobsOkay, you might be thinking, so why don’t women just go for higher-paying jobs?

Society discourages women from doing this in so many ways, but let’s focus on one of the most insidious: the belief that girls are bad at math, science, and other areas of study that tend to lead to higher paying jobs.

From an incredibly early age, girls are conditioned to believe that certain subjects are boy subjects, and this discourages us from trying hard in those subjects. A 2012 study proved that when girls are told that boys are better at a game or subject, it leads to the girls giving up earlier and not trying as hard. Another study found that the more equally genders are treated in a society, the lower the discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ math performance in school. There are plenty of other studies about why girls tend not to do well in math and science, and none of them have to do with an inherent lack of skills — it’s all about institutionalized sexism.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that when I was in grade school, I remember more than one teacher actually saying out loud to the class, “Girls are better at reading and English and boys are better at math and science,” as if it were fact. This was in the 90s!

Also: yes, these sexist teachers were women. Studies have also shown that both men and women believe the stereotype that girls can’t do math — and both genders are guilty of discrimination when hiring in these fields. But remember: just because both men and women can be sexist doesn’t mean it’s fair. It just means society is all the more fucked.

Now how does a lack of resources for working mothers in the U.S. correlate to the wage gap? If I ever have a kid, I’ll be out of commission at work for at least three months. After that, I’ll be able to come back to work only if I can afford day care or a nanny — and that’s not a given. Daycare is expensive as fuck. When I was a kid, it took up my mom’s entire salary, meaning work was only worth it for her because it ensured that she wouldn’t lose her place on the ladder and get left behind by her non-child-bearing colleagues.

If I can’t afford day care or a nanny, I’ll have to stay home with my kid and either stop working or drastically reduce my hours. When my kid gets into school, I’ll just be able to hop right back in though, right? Hell no. I’ll have missed years of changes by then and plenty of other writers and editors will be waiting to replace me at half my old salary. I’ll be lucky if I can make 2/3 of my previous salary by freelancing at that point.

You should have thought about that before you majored in liberal arts, you’re probably saying now. But no matter what field I’m in, I’m at a disadvantage to the men in that field if I have kids. This even affects doctors, according to a New York Times column:

Female doctors are more likely to be pediatricians than higher-paid cardiologists. They are more likely to work part time [to accommodate their families]. And even those working full time put in 7 percent fewer hours a week than men. They are also much more likely to take extended leaves, most often to give birth and start a family.

Much of the wage gap is caused by women’s need to be more flexible in our careers so we can raise families. It’s a tough problem to fix, but it’s a problem caused by gender differences and institutionalized sexism just the same. I don’t know if the way to fix this is through paid maternity leave (Pew research says that might not even help), men helping out more or what, but it’s definitely a contributing factor in the wage gap.

The third reason for the wage gap, a lack of respect for what’s considered women’s work, is one of my faves. Women get paid less because they choose lower paying jobs like teaching and daycare and nannying and house cleaning, you might say. Well, actually, there’s evidence that those jobs pay less simply because they’re mostly chosen by women. That’s discrimination.

A study out of Cornell last month confirmed what most women have known for generations: jobs that tend to be filled by women tend to pay less. And if a field starts out male-dominated and becomes female-dominated later on, that job’s average salary goes down. How do you explain that?

When large numbers of women became designers, wages in that field fell 34 percentage points, according to the Times. Women becoming housekeepers caused wages to fall 21 percentage points. Women becoming biologists caused wages to fall 18 percentage points.

“The reverse was true when a job attracted more men,” the Times reports. “Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.”

So the wage gap is caused by a lot of different factors. It’s not just like, a bunch of evil Don Drapers sitting in an office torching women’s résumés while they call in their hot female secretaries to get them more coffee. At least, not anymore. You’d have to be really simple-minded to think that feminists are arguing that.

Instead, it’s caused by widely held beliefs and a lack of policies that address the causes of wage inequality rather than just the symptoms. Yes, there’s an Equal Pay Act in effect — but that act isn’t going to keep teachers from telling kids that girls are bad at math. It’s not going to baby-sit my kid when I need to get back into the office to keep my job but my paycheck won’t cover daycare. It’s not even going to make my employer give me a promotion instead of passing me over in favor of a dude for no good reason.

Look at the wage gap like heart disease. Heart disease is often caused by environmental factors and habits. If you eat shitty food, if you smoke, if you never exercise, then you’re increasing your risk for heart disease. A good doctor will tell you to stop eating shitty food, smoking, and sitting on your ass. But a lazy doctor will just prescribe you Plavix and tell you to keep doing what you’re doing.

The Supreme Court is the lazy doctor in this scenario, and the Equal Pay Act is Plavix. It treats the symptom — wage inequality — rather than the causes — institutionalized sexism, lack of resources for working mothers, and the lack of value placed on women’s work, just to name a few.

So to dismiss the wage gap as a myth because we already have the Equal Pay Act and because it’s based on averages really doesn’t work. I get why it’s tempting to think that way, I really do. It must be hard to be a dude these days — you grow up competing against other guys in sports and for girls, so you think your entire life will just be a masculinity contest with the manliest dude taking all. Then you get into the real world and thanks to feminism, suddenly women are beating you at your own game? That has to suck. I feel for you.

But the thing is no one’s blaming the guy who wrote the original email for the wage gap. We are all guilty of perpetuating it in different ways — that’s how patriarchy and institutionalized sexism work. No one’s trying to take anything away from men. We just want men and women to have equal opportunities. This isn’t going to be accomplished by passing one law, as the Equal Pay Act has proven since 1963. Instead, we all have to look hard at ourselves and our society and figure out how we can fix this problem.

Assuming your mom had a full-time job, wouldn’t your life have been easier if she made just as much money as your dad did? Yes! Definitely! So why are you fighting against this? If women are compensated fairly, we all win.

Now if someone could explain to me why so many dudes are so hell-bent on “disproving” the wage gap, that would be awesome. I’m all ears.

Gimme More POP

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