Minding the Gap

While the U.S. Congress moves towards enacting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Tristin recently blogged about here, a U.K. think tank has released a report aimed at debunking the notion that discrimination accounts for gender disparities in pay. The Institute for Economic Affairs, whose mission is to find “ways of reducing the government’s role in our lives,” reports that differences in earnings can be accounted for most centrally by the fact that “[m]ales and females make different choices in the labor market, in terms of the trade-off between pay and other job characteristics, choice of education, choice of occupation and attitudes to work.” As stated in the Foreword, “the free choice of men and women who are seeking employment—as well as earlier educational choices and the choices they make regarding their domestic arrangements—are at the heart of differences in pay levels.” This account echoes the argument often deployed by employers facing claims of race discrimination, namely, that minorities simply aren’t interested in higher-paying, more secure jobs.

Why does this argument, which seems so easy to dismiss in the context of race discrimination, strike some as more plausible when it comes to women’s labor market “choices”? Enter Jill Lepore, who recently published an article in The New Yorker about the role of breast pumps in addressing the “Human Milk Gap.” Lepore reports:

One big reason so many women stop breast-feeding is that more than half of mothers of infants under six months old go to work. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only twelve weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave and, in marked contrast to established practice in other industrial nations, neither the government nor the typical employer offers much more. To follow a doctor’s orders, a woman who returns to work twelve weeks after childbirth has to find a way to feed her baby her own milk for another nine months. The nation suffers, in short, from a Human Milk Gap.

There are three ways to bridge that gap: longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps. Much effort has been spent implementing option No. 3, the cheap way out.

Lepore asks, “is it the mother, or her milk, that matters more to the baby?” She suggests that pumps allow us to avoid addressing this important social question and its policy implications.

Juxtaposing these perspectives suggests that, in a variety of contexts, it can be useful to reflect on what we mean when we talk about women’s “choices,” and how we fail to recognize the ways in which many women’s choices are constrained.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. Quidpro says:

    The argument that it is individual choices that account for much of the differnce in pay between men and women sounds “more plausible” because it is. Women who have never had children earn as much as similarly situated men. Once women choose to bear children, their career choices often change. They often seek more part-time work, or jobs requiring fewer hours and less travel, etc.

    To say that women’s choices are more “constrained” than men’s misses the mark. Today’s choices necessarily limit the choices I can make tomorrow.

  2. Miriam says:

    Women make 80% of what men make right out of college. In fact women with degrees from prestigeous universities make less than men from second tier schools. This is obviously not their ‘choice.’ (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,267862,00.html)

  3. Miriam says:

    Women make 80% of what men make right out of college. In fact women with degrees from prestigeous universities make less than men from second tier schools. This is obviously not their ‘choice.’ (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,267862,00.html)

  4. Quidpro says:

    Miriam,

    Everyone acknowledges the gap exists. The issue is causation. Look at your own situation. Were you “forced” to take an academic position and denied the opportunity for employment in the private sector where you might have made more?

    A private law firm that passes over hard working and talented women is at a competetive disadvantage. As you well know, the starting salaries at the large firms are the same regardless of sex.

    Women may not “choose” to make less. Few people do. But they often make choices that lead to lower compensation compared to their male peers as their careers progress.

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Why does this argument, which seems so easy to dismiss in the context of race discrimination, strike some as more plausible when it comes to women’s labor market “choices”?”

    Because everybody who’s not seriously self-deluded understands that the differences between men and women are more than skin deep. There’s more DNA on the X chromosome that never shows up in a woman than it takes to define many species. You can do MRI on male and female brains and see gross differences.

    The differences between men and women are hugely greater than the differences between the races, that’s why it’s plausible that different job market outcomes aren’t the result of discrimination.

    “Much effort has been spent implementing option No. 3, the cheap way out.”

    Um, yeah, people generally do try the cheap way out first… It’s cheaper.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    I think QP is overlooking that in most cases it isn’t just women who choose to have kids: more often than not there are husbands involved in that choice.

    Moreover, many men (myself included) have a better attitude than execution when it comes to sharing household duties. Consequently, once a couple has chosen to have kids, or even just to set up a household, in many cases it’s the woman who has to do the most double-duty.

    Dominique Méda, one of the most prominent French analysts of the nature of work, suggests that in addition to reducing out-and-out discrimination (e.g. different pay for same work), one of the remedies for this problem is to reduce the standard number of hours for “full-time” work. She points out that it’s tough for two parents to work 40-hour weeks; as a result, many women quit once they have children, or they take part-time or lower-paying work. Méda suggests that if the standard week were, say, 32 hours, it would be a lot easier for parents to share duties, while at the same time (i) giving women access to better work opportunities, and (ii) creating more employment opportunities for everyone. If you read French, I strongly recommend Méda’s concise and terrific « Le travail (3me éd. 2008) ».

  7. JP says:

    Miriam,

    The article you point to suggests that 3/4 of the pay gap can be explained by occupation, parenthood, etc…. In other words, the pay gap is attributable to several causes, including both employee choice and employer discrimination.

    A.J.,

    A French analyst suggesting a shorter workweek? Très cliché!

    More seriously, I don’t believe it’s clear whether a 32 hour workweek applied to American society would result in more or less gender equity. It may well just mean more men (and single-mothers) working two full-time jobs.