Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
Last Tuesday was “Equal Pay Day” in America. That’s the date set to highlight the gender pay gap in the United States. Social media is alive this year with all sorts of claims of discrimination and gender bias resulting in roughly a 25 percent difference in take home pay for men and women. It is a matter worthy of better reflection, beginning with some actual truth.
There is a gender wage gap with men making more on average than women do. There is also a commuting gap and a startling workplace death gap. Unlike the gender pay gap, which means women would have to work about three months longer than men to earn the same pay, the workplace death gap is more than tenfold. Women would have to work almost eleven months to share the same risk of death as a man does in just one month of work.
The gender pay gap, the commuting gap, the uniform wearing gap, the workplace death gap, the “I don’t get to see my kids often enough gap” all have almost exactly the same sources. They are due primarily to occupational, educational and family choices made by men and women.
There is a rich and abundant field of economic research on the true gender wage gap. The gender wage gap is the difference between the wages of men and women that cannot be explained by such obvious choices as education, hours worked, years of experience, occupation, choice of workplace and other measurable factors. Most studies peg the unexplained gap in the 2-to-5 percent range. This is bad, but it is not 25 percent. Moreover, studies that include family structure report that the gender wage gap nearly disappears once we account for the number of children in a family.
Now, most folks don’t do research like this, and depend upon elected leaders and others to speak honestly about the problems that confront us. So, let me say it plainly. The wild claims about a gender wage gap are just as dishonest as President Trump’s claims about immigrant crime, trade deals and the financing of the “The Wall.” These sorts of statements might be good for energizing an ignorant and wildly uninformed political base, but they are otherwise deceitful and unbecoming of anyone aspiring to serious leadership.
Dishonesty deserves to be called out, but the real problem with these lies are they divert our attention from addressing matters that could make the lives of families better. They also causer a counter-reaction that tends to reinforce differences in what Americans want in terms of policy and opportunity in the workplace. There’s a better way.
We should all admit that some gender equity issues are going to be hard to remedy. This is especially true in occupational choice. Though there are some outstanding young women now serving in the infantry, and receiving equal pay as their male counterparts, my hunch is that it’ll be a long time before half of infantry officers are women. The NFL and NBA, which do not formally exclude women, are even more extreme examples, with big pay impacts.
Other types of gender equity may be highly susceptible to change. Last year women earned much more than half of all college degrees, reinforcing a long-term trend that will entirely flip the education effect in the coming decades. But even here, occupational choice looms large with more than 80 percent of engineering degrees awarded to men and more than 75 percent of education degrees awarded to women.
There is discrimination against women, but the notion that it is ubiquitous or contributes in a large way to a pay gap is simply unsupported by evidence. Moreover, if it does, the biggest problem likely lies in occupational sorting that could be partially mitigated by smart workplace policies.
Making workplaces safer, more flexible for everyone or allowing men to have family leave to care for children are policies that could lessen occupational sorting. Ironically, the big beneficiary of these policies may be men, even if the largest wage gains come to women. If occupational sorting lessens, so too will the gender wage gap. At the same time, men will absorb less risk of death and injury, face shorter commutes and more flexible work hours. Women will experience just the opposite. So, as any woman choosing a career with more flexibility, more family friendly hours will admit, it never is all about the money. The sooner we can stop lying to one another about that, the sooner we can focus on policies that will make us all freer and our families better off.