You have probably heard this statistic: for every dollar the average working man earns, the average woman earns only 79 cents. But there's a lot of nuance hidden inside that fact. These numbers are just the beginning when it comes to equal pay.
This past Tuesday April 12th was Equal Pay Day, which marks when the average working woman would finally catch up to the amount her male counterpart made the year before.
Why is it important?
Advocates celebrate Equal Pay Day as an opportunity to publicize the wage gap that still exists between men and women and galvanize support for equal pay. Critics point out that most of the wage gap is due to individual decisions men and women make, like about childbearing or profession. Therefore, they argue, addressing the gap is not society's responsibility. The question of how much we should do to address the disparity bubbles to the surface in areas as diverse as the presidential election, professional tennis and soccer, credit scores, and more.
Should society do more to address the wage gap between men and women?
You do not have to think the wage gap is caused purely by overt sexism to recognize that society should do more to address it.
In 2015, women’s median weekly earnings were $729. Men's were $907. This difference has narrowed in recent decades as overt discrimination has declined, but it remains too high. Statistics show it is caused by a variety of factors. Some are societal, like the impact of child bearing and the differences in responsibility for child care. Others are behavioral, like that on average women choose lower paying professions, negotiate less aggressively, and work fewer hours—and these often have societal origins.
But these very facts call attention to the systemic issues women face in the workplace, where jobs are structured to reward long hours and rigid schedules that marginalize working moms. Society can and should address these barriers.
For example, one demonstrated way to improve gender pay equity is to make working hours more flexible. In industries where employees work long hours without rigid schedules, the pay gap is considerably reduced. Examples include the technology and science sectors, where hours are far more flexible than in finance and law. The list of improvements goes on: pay transparency, adequate child care, guaranteed maternity and paternity leave, and more.
Though some gender-based discrimination continues to exist, we know that the vast majority of the wage gap is caused by other factors. Among them: choice of profession, salary negotiation, and hours worked. Society is not responsible for correcting for these factors. Only individuals really can.
The commonly cited statistic on 79 cents to the dollar implies this gap is based on gender discrimination in work and education. This is deeply misleading. For one, men and women gravitate towards different professions, which influences wages. According to Census data, women's most common jobs are assistants and teachers, where men's are drivers and managers. For another, women are less likely to negotiate starting salaries and more likely to limit their hours, both of which affect their pay.
Many of these choices are the result of motherhood and/or personal preference. They are reasonable decisions. But since sex discrimination is no longer one of the main causes of the wage gap, government or private sector action to reduce gender discrimination won't fix it. Society shouldn't—in fact, can't—address this problem.
With discrimination now prohibited throughout the workforce, the remaining gap is almost entirely the result of individual decisions, decisions that men and women should remain free to make for themselves.