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Equal Pay Day Hype Ignores The Facts And Women’s Feelings About The Workplace


For a movement meant to smash the patriarchy, Equal Pay Day shares one of its worst habits—the apparent inability to listen to actual women.

Equal Pay Day is a PR holiday established in 1996 by the National Committee on Pay Equity to highlight the “gender pay gap.” Today is Equal Pay Day, signifying “the date women must work full time up until to make the same amount that men made working full time the year prior.”

The calculation is not exact. The National Committee on Pay Equity, whose website design alone may set women back several decades no matter how much work they do, admits it picked a date in April to roughly symbolize how far into the new year women might have to work to make up the so-called gender pay gap (real wage statistics aren’t released until fall). In fact, if one calculates the number of days based on the most recently available data, Equal Pay Day should fall around mid-March, not in April.

This deliberate miscalculation is a good symbol for this whole endeavor. Despite the hype, Equal Pay Day is, at best, a simplistic understanding of the factors that create wage differences. At worst, it’s an intentional misrepresentation of a phenomenon that almost completely ignores the choices, wishes, and motivations of women in the workplace.

Equal Pay Day uses the Department of Labor’s “median earnings of all full-time working women and all full-time working men” to determine the pay gap. It is not a comparison of women and men doing equal work in various jobs. The campaign and its message, echoed enthusiastically by most media, implies the gap is a product of discrimination. Wage discrimination certainly exists (Hi, Hollywood!), but it is not the pervasive and punitive 20-percent figure equal-pay advocates suggest when other factors are accounted for.

Robert Samuelson wrote in 2016 about a Cornell University study by two married economists:

[I]f women were paid a fifth less for doing the same work as men, there would be pervasive discrimination. That’s how the pay gap is interpreted by many. They demand ‘equal pay for equal work.’ But that’s not what the pay gap shows. It’s simply the ratio of women’s average hourly pay to men’s average hourly pay. The jobs in the comparison are not the same, and when these differences are taken into account, the ratio of women’s pay to men’s rises to almost 92 percent from 79 percent.

They’re not the only economists to concede the pay gap isn’t as simple as Equal Pay Day suggests. Obama’s own head of his Council of Economic Advisors, Betsey Stevenson, conceded as much when pressed about Equal Pay Day statistics on Equal Pay Day in 2014.

‘If I said 77 cents was equal pay for equal work, then I completely misspoke,’ Stevenson said. ‘So let me just apologize and say that I certainly wouldn’t have meant to say that… ‘There are a lot of things that go into that 77-cents figure, there are a lot of things that contribute and no one’s trying to say that it’s all about discrimination, but I don’t think there’s a better figure.’

Obama’s White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had to concede the same when, according to the standard used by Equal Pay Day advocates, the Obama White House was found guilty of heinous wage discrimination:

If that’s your standard — which is a joke of a standard, but let’s leave that aside — the White House suffers from a deeply alarming pay gap. And a pay gap that hasn’t gotten better since Obama took office.

We have two possible scenarios here. Either the White House — the headquarters of Mr. Equal Pay himself — suffers from a whopping pay gap of 13.3 percent, practicing unconscionable sexism by paying its female staffers an average of five figures ($10,100) less than the male staffers, or the White House is guilty of deception about pay gaps.

Spoiler alert: It’s the latter. I realize the news cycle is now anaphalactically allergic to nuance, but discussing this subject this way gets us no closer to making the workplace hospitable or less discriminatory for women.

That’s because making the workplace work for women requires listening to women about what they want in a workplace. Every time women are polled about this or their choices are taken into account, we find that they are more likely to make choices based on quality of life issues and flexibility, not pay. This tendency leads to women being paid less, according to the Department of Labor’s median calculation, because they are more represented in less dangerous, more flexible work with fewer hours, closer to home.

A 2016 Gallup survey found women are more exacting than men when choosing a job. They rank as their top three concerns “the ability to do what they do best, greater work-life balance and better personal well-being, and greater stability and job security.” The biggest sexes gap in the study was on work-life balance: 60 percent of women consider it “very important” versus 48 percent of men. Another standout was, wait for it, pay:

Across all the factors that go into deciding to take a new job, increased income is the only one that is more important to male employees than to female employees: 43% “very important” for men versus 39% “very important” for women.

These differing priorities understandably impact pay. Women are more likely to take a job that pays less to gain flexibility and work-life balance. I’ve done it myself many times.

Yet, as AEI’s Mark Perry points out, there is no widespread recognition of “Equal Occupational Fatality Day” to highlight men’s overrepresentation in very dangerous fields (coal mining, line work, and law enforcement among them), which often pay more to compensate for risk.

Based on the BLS data for 2016, the next ‘Equal Occupational Fatality Day’ will occur more than 10 years from now ­­– on May 30, 2028. That date symbolizes how far into the future women will be able to continue working before they experience the same loss of life that men experienced in 2016 from work-related deaths. Because women tend to work in safer occupations than men on average, they have the advantage of being able to work for more than a decade longer than men before they experience the same number of male occupational fatalities in a single year.

There is no big “Equal Commute Day,” to acknowledge the gender commute gap:

[T]he 31% ‘gender commute time gap’ in the US that reflects the longer daily commute time on average for men (25.3 minutes) vs. women (17.4 minutes), see table above for 26 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries including the US.

Male college graduates, on average, also entertain employment options further afield from their universities than do women, thereby opening up more and possibly higher-paying opportunities. They also work several hours more per week on average than women.

For women, a combination of protecting family life, prioritizing young children, and dealing with rising child-care costs cause them to leave the work force entirely for years at a time. A recent Census Bureau study found that women’s childbearing years and career-building years coincide from 25-35, resulting in a drop in pay relative to their male counterparts for women who have children during those years.

Women are more likely to reduce their work hours, take time off, turn down a promotion or quit their jobs to care for family. Even in families in which both parents work full time, women spend almost double the time on housework and child care. And when women work fewer hours, they are paid disproportionately less and become less likely to get raises or promotions.

‘This shows that the birth of a child is really when the gender earnings gap really grows,’ said Danielle H. Sandler, a senior economist at the Census Bureau and an author of the paper.

When women leave the workforce, especially for moms, their experience is better than it is for men, and they aren’t willing to jump back in without concessions to their home life.

But the experience of not working is also considerably more positive for women than men, the poll shows, which means that women are often not desperate to return to work. Women are more likely to say that not working has improved their romantic relationships, while men are more likely to say those relationships have suffered. Women who aren’t working spend more time exercising than they once did. Men spend less.

Still, many women also seem interested in working again — under the right conditions. And near the top of the list of those requirements is the flexibility to avoid upending their family life. Many fewer women than men said they would be willing to take a job with trade-offs that might significantly affect their lives: moving to a different city, commuting more than an hour each way, or working nontraditional hours. Notably, women with children at home account for many of the differences. Women without children often have attitudes about unemployment that are more similar to men’s, the poll shows.

Certainly, some of these differences could be caused by discrimination or social expectations. Perhaps women don’t work as many dangerous jobs because the jobs are male-dominated old boys’ clubs where women have had trouble breaking in. Maybe women opt for lower pay and more flexibility because societal expectations impose on them “almost double the time [spent] on housework and child care,” as the New York Times notes. Do women drop out of the workforce because the United States doesn’t offer generous taxpayer-funded child care or the mandates of Europe?

Sure, some of that is at play, but fundamentally, this is about trade-offs. Women are far more willing to give up higher pay for more comfortable work requirements. They often want to be around for their young children and are therefore more willing to give up career opportunities and time in the workforce to do so.

In countries where government subsidies attempt to even everything out, women’s choices and the trade-offs still rear their heads. In Europe, for instance: “The same policies that enable women to work in large numbers can also hold them back from reaching senior-level jobs. They become stuck in part-time work or fall behind during long leaves. Women are less likely to work in the United States, according to Ms. Blau’s research, but when they do, they tend to be more successful.”

In Denmark, where “new parents [get] an entire year of paid leave after the birth of a child” and “the government offers public nursery care for children under 3 at the equivalent of $737 a month,” the wage gap is the same as in the United States. As in the U.S. Census Bureau study, childbearing is where the salary trajectory changes for women, and the reasons are similar:

Much of Kleven’s paper is designed to untangle what exactly happens after women have children that leads to this wage gap. He finds that women start to gravitate toward different jobs after the birth of a child, ones with fewer hours and lower wages. Ten years after childbirth, women have a 10 percentage point higher probability of public sector employment than men. These are jobs that typically offer ‘flexible working hours, leave days when having sick children, and a favorable view on long parental leaves.

Men, however, see their careers go on largely unchanged, with dads and non-parents having roughly equal earnings over the next decades.’

Economics is the study of choice. You can’t credibly examine wage gaps without examining the choices of women, many of them designed to give up pay for other benefits, and made with open eyes and their own best interests at heart. Changes in hiring practices and attitudes about flexibility could change some of that in the future, but women’s choices will always matter and they should be respected, not ignored. Or, at least that’s what the feminists used to tell me.