When I was on the board of the National Organization
for Women in New York City in the 1970s, I led protests against the
male-female pay gap. I assumed the gap reflected both discrimination against
women and the undervaluing of women.
Then one day I asked myself, If we can pay women less for the same work,
why would anyone hire a man? And if they did, wasnt there a punishment called
going out of business? In other words, did market forces contain a built-in
punishment against discrimination?
Perhaps, I thought, male bosses undervalue women. But I discovered women
without bosses--who own their own businesses-- earn only 49 percent as much
as male business owners. Why?
When the Rochester Institute of Technology surveyed business owners with
MBAs, they discovered money was the primary motivator for only 29 percent
of the women, versus 76 percent of the men. Women prioritized autonomy, flexibility
(25 to 35-hour weeks and proximity to home), fulfillment, and safety.
These contrasting goals were reflected in contrasting behavior: male business
owners working 29 percent more; being in business 51 percent longer; having
more employees; and commuting 47 percent farther.
To make a fair legal assessment of the value of these differences requires
more than saying, for example, that people who work 33 percent more hours
should earn that much more pay. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that
people who work 33 percent more hours get about double the pay. For example,
people who work 44 hours per week make more than twice the pay of those working
34 hours. (Not at the same job, but, for example, at a job like a national
sales representative, that would not even be available to someone who could
only work 34 hours per week.)
After a decade of research, I discovered 25 differences in men's and women's
work-life choices. All of them lead to men earning more money; and all lead
to women having lives more balanced between work and home. (Since real power
is about having a better life, well, once again, the women have outsmarted
High pay, as it turns out, is about trade-offs. Men's trade-offs include
working more hours (women work more at home); taking more-dangerous, dirtier
and outdoor jobs (garbage collecting; construction; trucking); relocating
and traveling; training for more technical jobs with less people contact (engineering);
taking late night shifts; working for more years; and being absent less frequently.
These are just 10 of the 25 variables that must be controlled to accurately
assess the pay gap. And they don't include three of the most important variables:
one's specialty, sub-specialty and productivity.
Is the pay gap, then, about men's and women's choices? Not quite. It's about
Women who have never been married and are without children earn 117 percent
of their male counterparts' income. (The comparison controls for education,
hours worked and age.) Why? The decisions of never-married women without children
are more like men's (e.g., they work longer hours and don't leave their careers),
and never-married men's are more like women's (careers in arts, etc.). The
result? The women out-earn the men.
The crucial variable in the pay gap is family decisions. And the most important
family variable is the division of labor once children are born: children
lead to dad intensifying his work commitments and mom intensifying her family
The pay gap, then, is not the problem. It is a reflection largely of family
decisions that we may or may not wish to change. The law can still attend
to discrimination, but not by starting with the assumption the pay gap means
Does the change in division of labor once children arrive imply mothers
sacrifice careers? Not quite. Polls of people in their twenties find both
genders would prefer sacrificing pay for more family time. In fact, men in
their twenties are more willing to sacrifice pay for family than women (70%
of men; 63% of women). The next generation's discussion may not be who sacrifices
career? but who sacrifices being the primary parent? The real discrimination
may be discrimination against dads' option to raise children.
Don't women, though, earn less than men in the same job? Yes and no. For
example, with doctors, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps physicians and
surgeons together. The male doctor is more likely to be the surgeon, work
in private practice, for hours that are longer and less predictable, and for
more years. When these variables are accounted for, the pay is precisely the
same. What appears to be the same job (doctor) is not the same job.
Are these women's choices? When I taught at the school of medicine at the
University of California, San Diego, I saw my female students eyeing specialties
with fewer and more predictable hours (dermatology, psychiatry). Conversely,
they avoided specialties with lots of contact with blood and death, such as
But don't female executives also make less than male executives? Yes. Discrimination?
Let's look. Comparing men and women who are corporate vice presidents camouflages
the facts that men more frequently assume financial, sales and other bottom-line
responsibilities (vs. human resources or PR); they are vice presidents of
national and international (vs. local or regional) firms; with more personnel
and revenues; they are more likely executive or senior vice-presidents. They
have more experience, relocate more, travel overseas more, and are considerably
older when they become executives.
Comparing men and women with the same jobs is still often to compare apples
and oranges. However, when all 25 choices are the same, the great news for
women is that then they make more than men.
Is there, nevertheless, discrimination against women? Yes. For example,
the old boys' network. But in some fields, men are virtually excluded -- try
getting hired as a male dental hygienist, nursery school teacher, cocktail
waiter, or selling even men's clothing at Wal-Mart.
The social problem with focusing our legal binoculars only on discrimination
against women is that the publicity those lawsuits generate leads us to miss
opportunities for women. For example, we miss 80 fields in which women can
work, for the most part, fewer hours and fewer years, and still earn more
than men. Fields such as financial analyst, speech-language pathologist, radiation
therapist, library worker, biological technician, funeral service worker,
motion picture projectionist.
Thus women focused on discrimination don't know which female engineers make
143 percent of their male counterparts; or why female statisticians earn 135
Nor did my daughters know that pharmacists now earn almost as much as doctors.
As I took my binoculars off of discrimination against my daughters, I discovered
opportunities for them.
The biological instinct of most judges and attorneys, like all humans, is
to protect women. When there was no societal permission for divorce, husbands
supplied women's income for a lifetime so women had the protection of an income-producer
who could not fire her. When divorces became more common, the government became
a substitute husband.
The instinct to protect women trumped rational analysis of whether unequal
pay was caused by discrimination or by the differences in men's and women's
work-life choices. It prevented us from even thinking of radical questions
such as Do women who have never been married earn more than married women
because they have less privilege (fewer options) than married women? And,
if so, is men's tendency to earn more than women because they have less privilege
(fewer options) than women? Is the pay gap not about male power, but about
male obligation and female privilege?
The result? Employers today often feel in a precarious relationship with
their female employees. Will the woman submitting her employment file today
be filing a lawsuit tomorrow?
My goal is to give women ways of earning more rather than suing more, thus
erasing the fear of companies to pursue women so as not to be sued by women;
to give companies ways of teaching women how to earn more; and give the government
ways of separating real discrimination from its appearance. This is the world
I want for my daughters.
Warren Farrell is author of Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth
Behind the Pay Gap--and What Women Can Do About It and several other
books. More at www.warrenfarrell.com.