Sexism is bad enough. What’s worse, by several orders of magnitude, is the dishonesty of those who deny its existence.
And for now, I’m not even talking about the way in which some downplay the crisis of rape culture and sexual predation by celebrities, politicians, college boys and others possessed of a sense that they are entitled to women’s time, attention and bodies.
For now, I’m just speaking of the arrogant dismissal of long-verifiable gender inequities in labor market compensation. To hear right-wingers tell it, the much heralded pay gap is a leftist myth cooked up by dishonest feminists to unfairly malign men and poison the minds of women as to the supposed unfairness they experience in America.
To make their case, the dude-bros of denial don’t dispute that women, on balance, receive less pay than men across the labor market. But they insist that the explanations for that gap are unrelated to discrimination or unequal opportunities rooted in sexism.
Rather, they insist, gaps are the result of occupational choices, work effort, women taking time off to bear children, and differences in negotiating strategies between men and women, among other things. Once these things are controlled for, in social science lingo, the disparities disappear like a mirage in the desert.
But in truth, the only mirage is the presumed logic behind these arguments, and the ability of conservatives to understand some basic social science concepts: namely, the idea of what constitutes an independent (as opposed to a dependent) variable. Although these additional variables do indeed narrow the pay gap (though not eliminate it), all the things they seem to think explain gender pay inequity, separate and apart from sexism or gender-based unfairness, are actually intimately related to those very problems.
The Experience, Qualifications, and Occupation Excuses
Whether the subject is gender bias or racism for that matter (because conservatives make the same argument in both cases), the right contends that the reason for lower pay rates for women is that, on average, women have less work experience and fewer qualifications than men. In other words, pay differentials — like the oft-quoted 80 cents on the dollar that women receive compared to men — are aggregate figures, which fail to account for different levels of experience or the types of jobs that women do as opposed to men. When comparing only men and women doing the same job, with the same qualifications, the discrepancies evaporate they say.
But while it is true that factors such as experience and job type influence aggregate wages for men and women, those factors are not truly independent of something like gender bias. How much experience one has and the type of occupation at which one labors are both highly correlated with one’s sex or gender and the unequal opportunities to which folks have been subjected as a result of those identities. If discrimination has put some people behind and others ahead in the race for the best jobs, then as time presses on, those with the initial disadvantages will remain behind. But to claim that their status as income laggards is due solely to less experience, when their accumulation of credentials has itself been stymied by inequity of access, would be absurd.
So too, to claim that men get paid more because they do more difficult or exacting work assumes that we can draw a bright line between difficult and not-so-difficult work so as to justify pay discrepancies. But can we?
Can we honestly say, for instance, that construction work — which is male dominated and surely grueling, not to mention dangerous — is more difficult, exhausting, or requires more intelligence and ability than caring for elderly patients in a nursing home or providing child care, both of which are female-dominated professions?
Under what rational calculation could we make such a claim? If anything, the nursing and child care jobs typically require more education, and for those men who think taking care of old folks or kids is easy, perhaps it should be noted how averse men typically are to doing either.
That cleaning up after the incontinent or not-yet-potty trained is hardly a walk in the park should be obvious, yet those who do this work are paid not based on some objective scale of social importance, but rather the fact that businesses who want new buildings are flush with cash to pay for construction, while people tend to dump their elderly in homes (in this culture), and have a hard time placing a monetary value on human life, unlike say, a brand new boardroom.
But rest assured, if old people began shitting diamonds once they reached the age of ninety, elder care workers would be paid like CEOs, as the value of keeping people alive and taking good care of them, if only for the purpose of the pending diamond harvest, would skyrocket.
Bottom line: work that has been deemed “women’s work,” and paid less for the designation didn’t come to be known as such through some objective, value-neutral process, in which it was agreed that yes, that work is less important than the work done by men. If anything, many of the jobs that are disproportionately performed by women — be it the unpaid labor of mothering and housekeeping, or the wage-labor work of child care, nursing, or teaching — are recognized as being among the most important vocations in the society. We just don’t pay them commensurate with how we value them.
Housekeeping and child-rearing, for example, when performed mostly by one partner, frees the other partner for the pursuit of wages, relieves the need to pay for nannies and maids, and adds hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial value to the home unit each year. But the women who do the bulk of that work are almost entirely unremunerated, and their skills developed from such labor, while real, are almost never valued in the paid workforce if they decide to re-enter it after a time in the home. But that is because of a choice we make, in terms of what to value in the market, and what to discount. It is not the result of science, be it social or otherwise.
Of Mommy Tracks and Female Timidity: Rationalizing Gender Inequities
In addition to the above excuses, those who insist the gender pay gap is a myth claim that women don’t place the same value on paid labor as men, and are more likely than men to prefer taking time off to have a child, and staying at home to raise that child after their birth.
Furthermore, they argue, women don’t employ as aggressive a negotiating strategy when it comes to their salaries. In other words, men are more likely to push for additional money (be it a starting salary or a raise) than women, and so any differences between men and women in terms of their paychecks can be explained in large measure by the fundamental differences in the way men and women negotiate. Presumably, if women were willing or able to deploy typical male negotiating strategies, they would fare better. So the change needs to come from women, not the mostly male-dominated institutions that hire them.
With regards to both of these arguments however, those putting forth the propositions are conveniently overlooking a few things.
As for the child-rearing preference, the fact is, even if women (presuming for a moment heterosexuality) preferred to share those responsibilities with their male partners, the workforce in the U.S. is not set up in a way that readily allows for such sharing. So what appears to some as a preference for taking time off, and thereby sacrificing continual service with an employer, may be little more than the inevitable result of a labor market system that has long been predicated on the assumption of male breadwinning.
Unlike most European nations, which offer paid leave for both mother and father upon the birth of a child (and some actually require this leave, whether desired or not), it has long been taken for granted that in the U.S., mothers quit their paid jobs when a child is born, while fathers labor on.
Indeed, for men who want to share child-rearing responsibilities, the exigencies of the workforce make it difficult to exercise that choice. Most men don’t have the kind of job flexibility that would allow them to take time off, job-share, take leave (paid or unpaid), and otherwise split the home responsibilities with their wives and partners.
Indeed, for a man who wanted to do any of those things, there would be a constant fear, not unfounded, that his employer could (and likely would) replace him, probably with another man whose nurturing instincts and commitment to gender equity in the home was far less concretized. Unless the social structure supports shared sacrifice, sacrifice will end up being made by those with the least institutional power, irrespective of one’s personal desires.
And so long as the society is a male-dominated one, in which men express a preference not to rear children, no matter what women might prefer, they will have little choice but to do the child-rearing and homemaking. Given a choice between that, and not becoming a mother at all, most women will choose to sacrifice a few years of their career. But we can hardly assume that such a choice is rooted in some biological or deeply-ingrained feminine set of values.
So to use women’s choices in this regard as an excuse for wage disparities is to assume that women should, in effect, be punished for making a choice, which they were hardly free not to make. It is to reward men for the nature of the social structure. It is to insist on the perpetuation of patriarchal norms: first by naturalizing the domesticity of women (and sadly, the external labor of men, even if many men might prefer a better balance between the two realms), and then by justifying the wage based disparities that result, to the benefit of men and detriment of women.
Bottom line, that women often have less continual service on the job than men, thanks to child-rearing responsibilities, can hardly be considered a truly independent variable, separate and apart from sexism, when it is sexism itself that has created those norms regarding who should and who shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their careers, at least in part, for their children.
As for the issue of negotiating strategies, though the research suggests that indeed gender differences in this arena are quite real, evidence indicates that the reasons for these differences have to do less with natural differences or purely free choice, and more to do with the recognition by women (quite accurate as it turns out) that employers will respond far less favorably to their aggressiveness when it comes to pushing for more money.
So, for instance, consider the findings of researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government several years ago, which demonstrated that women who haggle for better pay are viewed much differently than their male counterparts. According to the research, the reluctance of women to ask for more money was due to an accurate perception that doing so would brand them as “less nice,” and would ultimately backfire.
Indeed, what the researchers discovered was that in each and every experimental setting, men were less willing to work with women who had attempted to negotiate than with those who didn’t, and haggling by women was twice as likely to result in a negative evaluation by men than when it was men doing the haggling.
So once again, a variable that some might think independent of sexism is actually related directly to it. Yes, different negotiating strategies can affect wage rates for men and women. But if those strategies are themselves the result of rational fears that men will respond negatively to women who bargain aggressively, then bias against women is still controlling the outcomes received by women in the workforce.
Look guys, I know it’s difficult to admit that maybe the edge we have in income and occupational status isn’t actually because we’re smarter, or harder working, or more driven. I know it’s hard to accept that we’re still benefitting from systemic injustices aimed at women, including many of our mothers, girlfriends, wives, sisters, daughters and friends.
But just because you don’t want to deal with the truth — and like to dress up your denial with bogus statistical regressions to prove how fair things are — doesn’t make your effort any more legitimate. The gender pay gap is real. And so is the gap in critical thinking skills between those who see it, and those who continue to pretend it’s just a figment of someone’s overwrought imagination.
Like your hero Ben Shapiro says — who is also fond of denying the pay gap — facts don’t care about your feelings.
I tweet and Facebook. My podcast, Speak Out With Tim Wise, is available on iTunes and Google Play, and I post bonus audio commentaries and content at my Patreon page. Speaking engagements are booked through Speak Out: the nation’s premier non-profit speaker’s bureau.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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