Take the wages of every male employed in the U.S. and divide by the number of men employed. Now do the same for females in the U.S. Perform these calculations, and what you will find is that the average female wage in the United States is about 78% of the average male wage. This doesn’t mean, of course, that a woman will get paid seventy eight cent for every dollar paid to a man for the same job, though it’s often phrased that way in popular discourse. If it were really true that an employer could get a woman to do the same job at the same level for 78% of the wages, some entrepreneur would long ago have started hiring only women and cleaned his competitors’ clocks. Rather, the difference is largely due to different career choices made by men as opposed to women. Men, for example, tend to work more in risky professions, and tend to work longer hours, whereas women are more likely to cease being employed for extended periods of time in order to raise or have kids (for details, see Warren Farrell’s book Why Men Earn More).
For decades liberal denial of this fact has led to some remarkably silly policy proposals, such as that the government should determine how much every job is *really* worth and force employers to pay accordingly. An article by David Leonhardt this week in the New York Times, however, indicates that progressives may be ever so slowly to accept reality on the point. Writes Leonhardt:
A recent study of business school graduates from the University of Chicago found that in the early years after graduating, men and women had “nearly identical labor incomes and weekly hours worked.” Men and women also paid a similar career price for taking off or working part time. Women, however, were vastly more likely to do so.
As a result, 15 years after graduation, the men were making about 75 percent more than the women. The study — done by Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz — did find one subgroup of women whose careers resembled those of men: women who had no children and never took time off.
Of course, being a good liberal, Leonhardt still sees the pay gap as objectionable (even if the result of women’s choices) and still gestures towards government interventions to correct the problem:
Universal preschool programs — like the statewide one in Oklahoma — would make life easier for many working parents. Paid parental leave policies, like California’s modest version, would make a difference, too. With Australia’s recent passage of paid leave, the United States has become the only rich country without such a policy.
It’s not clear to me how paid parental leave is supposed to help with the pay gap. Presumably the result of allowing/encouraging women to take more time off work when they have kids will be that women will take more time off work when they have kids, which is one of the primary causes of the pay gap in the first place. In any case, Leonhardt is ultimately forced to concede that a more generous welfare state is probably not going to solve the problem, noting that “[i]n the European countries with much more generous parental leave laws, women remain far behind men on career ladders.” Instead, he suggests that
The best hope for making progress against today’s gender inequality probably involves some combination of legal and cultural changes, which happens to be the same combination that beat back the old sexism. We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too.
So all we really need to do is create a society where the boss doesn’t care if his employee doesn’t show up to work for six months. Shouldn’t be too difficult.
Motherhood is a biological reality. The fact that employers gain no benefit from an employee when they are not working is an economic reality. Attempting to alter these realities through “legal and cultural changes” is not apt to be successful. That may not be a pleasant fact, but reality is not always a pleasant thing.