Friday, October 7, 2016

Gender pay gap - why the disagreements?

Not long ago I wrote in reference to a suggestion that academic feminism is hurting women. The article that had inspired my post included reference to one of the better known critics of reporting about the gender pay gap. The rather troubling piece seemed to suggest that women have already won the fight for equality and it is only radical feminists and other liberals who perpetuate the myths that, for example, there is a gender wage gap. It's been bothering me that not only did I not address this myth-not myth in my post, but that I keep hearing it again and again.

Christina Hoff-Sommers is frequently cited when people want to argue that the gap is a myth - she works for a conservative thinktank in the States and argues that many feminists are lying to us when they present statistics - so for example,

The bottom line: the 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. When such relevant factors are considered, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.

Wage gap comic
Cartoon from
In one of her slightly condescending youtube videos, she says that the gap represents only the total difference between all men and women in full-time work without considering differences in occupation, job tenure, positions, education, and hours worked per week. A special example she gives is in medicine, because women are more likely to choose lower paying specialties, like paediatrics rather than cardiology, because they're more likely to choose to work part-time, and because full-time female doctors work 7% fewer hours than males. And women choose to take long periods of absence to start a family. If you account for that, there's no difference. What Hoff Sommers willfully ignores is that just because accounting for these sorts of variables makes the wage gap go away does not mean that those variables themselves are not evidence of some kind of gender wage problem. For example, some questions, why isn't paediatrics paid as much as cardiology? Why are there not more females in cardiology? Is it really the case that female doctors feel the same amount of social pressure to take a break from work to start a family as their husbands? Without a comprehensive answer to these questions, it's merely shifting the blame for the wage gap across from one variable to another and pretending that means there's no problem. I would argue that as long as the statistics show there is a difference, whether the manifestation is at the level of equal pay or at stereotypical patterns of choice does not really matter: there's a problem that needs to be understood. Hoff Sommers prefers to obscure it. At the same time, she claims that only truth will really improve things for women. When she insists that there is freedom of choice, she blames women's free choices for the pay gap. For psychologists it is very hard these days to argue that decisions are made completely freely, in some sort of emotional, social and chronological vacuum; this makes her claim ideological rather than factual. What ideological bent would drive the insistence that the gender pay gap doesn't exist when so many institutions claim it does?

To its credit, the Ministry for Women agree with my assessment of the issue in their recent announcement of the latest figures, which show an increase in the gap. They address the claim made by Hoff Sommers and others, with spectacular use of mocking inverted commas to say that sometimes the gap is 'explained' by other factors. But the Ministry presents those factors as causes of the gap, so there is a difference between explaining the gap and explaining away the gap.

Difference in % between male and female pay, based on data from Ministry of Women

So now that it's been announced that the gender pay gap is up (clearly on the rise since 2012 but with very small increase year on year) - how long before Hoff Sommers gets brought out to argue that it's not a real thing? I'd give it a day or two at most...

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